WRB—Nov. 1, 2023
Don’t you want to feel something?
The Washington Review of Books is not some pleasant cultural game reserved for those too impotent for practice. It is concerned with judgments about goodness. As these judgments are apprehended and acted upon by practical men, they become the unfolding of fate.
The American Scholar has an excerpt from Christian Wiman’s upcoming book (Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, December) about poetry as a means of communicating human emotion that both expands and constrains it:
Then, too, I would argue that poetry is where human language retains, resuscitates, protects, and extends its natural origins. Poetry is both nerve and notion, instinct and abstraction. The tectonic volatilities and more-than-conscious calms of its soundscapes can reach way, way back—and powerfully, paradoxically forward—in both time and mind. Poetry makes nothing happen? Might as well say nature makes nothing happen.
[A couple paragraphs after the Pound injunction quoted in the piece he gives us “Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music,” which gets to the heart of it. —Steve] [None of Wiman’s poems have ever been featured in the WRB, somehow, but one of his translations of Osip Mandelstam was the Poem in WRB—Apr. 23, 2022. —Chris]
Two in the latest issue of the LRB. First, Gale Walden on her relationship with David Foster Wallace:
David, who watched a lot of romcoms, knew how to play the romantic lead. He could dead-lift you for a kiss or sweep you off your feet Officer-and-a-Gentleman-style. He practiced this. He knew it was a substitute for a deeper capacity to have a relationship. The first time we dated he took a quiz in Cosmopolitan about good and bad boyfriends. “I am the worst kind,” he squealed. The kind with big romantic gestures, an undivided attention that can’t sustain itself, a bigger sense of self than of any coupledom. I didn’t need a quiz to know that.
[“He thinks you look like a young Liv Ullmann”—having somewhat recently spent time with many of Bergman’s films I absolutely get it. It’s not just that her face is striking, although it is; it’s a face you could look at forever because of its unmatched capacity to display any and every emotion. —Steve] [I experienced more shame reading that line than I think has ever darkened my mind any time before. —Chris] [To be clear: same. —Steve] [What I’m saying is, I’m stealing this. —Chris] [That’s the point of reading anything right there—finding stuff to steal. —Steve]
But undoing false narratives, in the hope that a more authentic self might somehow be located, requires a repositioning on two fronts: in the way a person chooses to interact with and represent the world, and in the way they make sense of their past. At home in Cambridge, Tunde decides to shower with a bar of black soap. He remembers how, as a young, guilt-stricken Christian, he rejected local traditions: his parents spoke of the spiritual benefits of bathing with black soap, but he preferred Joy or Imperial Leather. “He was a city kid and anything that didn’t come in a printed package, anything that smelled like it was made in a village, put him off.”
What the Trinity nuclear test once achieved for American political thought, White Noise does on the plane of American post-Sixties fiction: it practically splits time apart, conjoining inferno and paradise with such intense craft that the world starts anew. The three major currents of cold war white fiction—realist, Jewish, and systems—are woven together as never before in White Noise. And the novel would rapidly birth its own school, a DeLillo lineage of many long-lived branches. On the basis, essentially, of one book, in under a decade, he became to a new wave of writers what Faulkner had been for DeLillo’s own cohort: not merely a great author, but something like the sum of literary possibility itself.
We return to WRB favorite Joan Didion [Okay, okay. Whose favorite? —Chris] [I like some of her stuff quite a lot—her piece on Woody Allen from 1979 is perfectly correct—but she gets the people riled up. She gets the people going. —Steve] for a review byin the local Free Beacon of Evelyn McDonnell’s new book about her (The World According to Joan Didion, September):
McDonnell tells us that Didion was such a professional that she deleted whole passages of her work: “Words did not burst in precise formation from Joan Didion’s brain and land on the page pristine. She crossed whole passages out. Her rigor is apparent in the final product. It took time and labor to get there.”
I am not sure the same can be said about The World According to Joan Didion.
[Behind the paywall: film festivals and Stanley Cavell, more on “literary fiction,” of course, Julia’s renowned poetry notes, and Steve on Canadian nationalism. Wow! You’re missing out!]
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