Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.
The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.
A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.
There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.
Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.
The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”
The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.
Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.
The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.
Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival. Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.
Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.
The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.
Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.
This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.
Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Lydia Davis, Lauren Michele Jackson, Jorge Comensal, Darryl Pinckney, and more—that are publishing this week.
Essays One by Lydia Davis
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Essays One: “The first in a planned two-volume collection of the nonfiction of short story author Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant) proves a cornucopia of illuminating and timeless observations on literature, art, and the craft of writing. A master of short, punchy prose works, Davis discloses her influences, some of which may be surprising even to longtime fans, including Roland Barthes, Franz Kafka, and Grace Paley, among many more. In a few essays, Davis presents first drafts of her own work along with the final versions, annotating and explaining revisions and providing an instructive window into her process. Interwoven throughout are short pieces on some of Davis’s favorite artists, or alternatively, those whom she finds pleasingly confounding. In the latter category is expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, whose 1973 work Les Bluets Davis credits with helping her to accept and embrace the inscrutable. Invaluable is the 2013 piece ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,’ which outlines best practices for creative writing, from honing one’s observational techniques to crafting believable dialogue. Fans of Davis’s unfailingly clever work should add this volume to their collection, and creative writers of every genre should take the opportunity to learn from a legend.”
The Innocents by Michael Crummey
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Innocents: “In his fifth novel, Crummey (Sweetland) imparts another heartfelt, extraordinary perspective on survival in the rugged isolation of his homeland of Newfoundland, this time from two pre-adolescent, newly orphaned siblings, after illness fells their infant sister and parents. Evered and Ada Best endure inconceivably severe weather conditions; their 19th-century livelihoods are at the mercy of nature—will they harvest enough fish to trade for necessary winter provisions? Besides the biannual visits of the ship, ironically named The Hope and run by an unscrupulous money-man, the brother and sister only have each other for companionship. Happenstance brings a captain and his cook to their cove—just in time to save a feverish Ada from near death; later a ship full of sailors looking to replace their mainmast arrives, temporarily enlivening their existence. Against the sensitive portrayal of how two naïfs handle their budding sexuality, these fortuitous encounters underscore Evered’s and Ada’s innocence about life and the larger world. Crummey delivers profound insight into how individuals grapple with the forces of nature, not only in the unpredictable environment, but in the mystifying interior of their temperaments, drives, and character. This story of how two guileless youngsters navigate life will have a deep emotional impact on its readers.”
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about White Negroes: “Northwestern University professor Jackson’s insightful debut essay collection takes on cultural appropriation—particularly of black innovation by white celebrities, artists, and entrepreneurs—through the lens of power dynamics, identifying it as a process by which ‘society’s imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged.’ In the realm of pop culture, she analyzes the pursuit of ‘urban’ sexual wildness by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, the aesthetic but not economic investment of the Kardashians in black fashion, and Paula Deen’s fetishistic presentation of Southern food alongside explicit racism. Her exploration of the art world juxtaposes the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, made famous by her ‘impulse to inhabit blackness,’ with accusations against institutions such as the Whitney Biennial, which she asserts ignores black artists but treats depictions of antiblack violence as edgy and relevant. She identifies toxic white resentment of black success in the recent viral videos of white people calling the police on black people (often children) for using public pools, having lemonade stands, or barbecuing in parks. Jackson is uncompromising in her bold language, palpable in her outrage; she keeps her razor-sharp analysis in an accessible but academic register. She both calls out the damage done by appropriative and oppressive behavior and calls in white readers to take part in valuing black contributions in a way that helps black lives.”
The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence edited by Geoff Dyer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Bad Side of Books: “Dyer (Broadsword Calling Danny Boy) selects and introduces an uneven but fascinating array of essays by D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930). Comprising 38 selections from the earlier collections Phoenix and Phoenix II, the book demonstrates Lawrence’s mastery of multiple genres, from philosophical tract (‘Of Being and Not-Being’) and book review (‘Death in Venice by Thomas Mann’), to memoir (“Myself Revealed”) and nature writing (“Flowery Tuscany”). Dyer edits with a light hand, presenting the essays in strict chronological order so readers can ‘follow the twists and turns of Lawrence’s writing and thought over time.’ Occasionally, his editorial presence proves too recessive, with minimal footnotes. The wide variety of topics—one stretch of essays considers, in turn, Cézanne, pornography, Christianity, and the mines of Lawrence’s home county of Nottingham—makes it likely that any reader can find something of interest, but unlikely that the entirety will appeal consistently to those new to Lawrence. Such neophytes will also find that some of Lawrence’s thoughts regarding race, ethnicity, and gender jar discordantly against modern norms. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive example of a curious mind grappling with big issues, and samples the work of a writer of great intelligence and wit.”
The Mutations by Jorge Comensal (translated by Charlotte Whittle)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Mutations: “Comensal’s punchy debut follows a group of physically and emotionally ailing characters in present-day Mexico City. Lawyer Ramon Martinez opens his mouth ‘like an angry baboon’ to discover a painful lump. His whole tongue needs to be removed; his wife Carmela seems more worried about his children’s reactions than his pain, though she adopts his insomnia ‘in solidarity.’ Psychoanalyst Teresa de la Vega, a breast cancer survivor, specializes in treating people with illnesses. One patient is Eduardo, a young man also very concerned with cancer, having had leukemia as a child. Teresa obsesses over Eduardo as Carmela does over her family. When Eduardo comes down with bronchitis, Teresa and the reader are compelled to wonder about the connection between neurosis and physical ailments. A quote from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor introduces the novel’s second half. Teresa, Eduardo, and Ramon and his family anchor the narrative, while Comensal folds in other, complementary plot threads. Ramon’s doctor, Joaquin Aldama, becomes passionately involved in the care of his terminal patient Lorena Galvan, but not so much in that of Luis Ramirez, who is fond of complex conspiracy theories about his illness. The novel gets its comic charge from blunt and colorful descriptions of emotional situations that in other fiction would dictate long and evocative passages (‘The dream’s latent content represented the paradox of the jouissance of the Other.’). Sidestepping sentimentality and elaborate emotional expression, Comensal brings comic compassion to his treatment of contemporary neuroses.”
Busted in New York and Other Essays by Darryl Pinckney
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Busted in New York and Other Essays: “This robust group of essays written between 1994 and 2018 by novelist Pinckney (Black Deutschland) explores African-American identity, politics, and culture. Covering such topics as Aretha Franklin’s ‘profound influence’ and what Pinckney sees as Afro-pessimism’s futility, the author puts his insightful perspective on full display in each selection. From the highs of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the lows of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Pinckney acknowledges both the social progress that’s been made and the urgency for further change. In the book’s title essay, Pinckney recounts spending a night in the Manhattan municipal jail known as ‘the Tombs’ after he and two friends were arrested for smoking a joint outside a nightclub. Spending that night and much of the next day behind bars, Pinckney observes how ‘the system’ exercises absolute control over ‘the nonwhite young, the poor’ in ways previously unknown to him and his friends, all educated professionals able to easily brush off the experience. Reflections on black women’s experiences are relatively underrepresented, but nonetheless, Pinckney demonstrates his extensive range as a commentator on African-American life. This collection offers a deep dive into his prolific career as an indispensable critic of his times.”
On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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Most serious consumers of culture are, in one way or another, indebted to Susan Sontag. More than a decade after her untimely death in December 2004, it’s difficult to deny the resonance of her essays, whether it’s “Against Interpretation,” the 1964 ur-text that would solidify her reputation as a public intellectual; On Photography and Illness and Its Metaphors, with their trenchant takedowns of how we take photographs and live with cancer; or her last major work, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she lays bare our own culpability in viewing images of suffering. One cannot read a Susan Sontag essay and come away unscathed about the modern world: how we see it, how we capture it, how we live and die in it.
One marvels to imagine, were Sontag alive today, what she would think (and write!) about our hyper-connected, Instagram-and-Twitter, President-Trump, ISIS-threatened world. Then again, this is one of the defining characteristics of a great thinker, a great polemicist: You wish she or he were still around to illuminate our present moment, to help us make sense of the whole damn mess.
For me, Sontag is, first and foremost, a cultural gatekeeper. It was through her essays and think pieces that I learned not so much about her aesthetic arguments as about the works supporting them: the novels of W.G. Sebald and Victor Serge; Jean-Luc Godard’s tragic Vivre Sa Vie and Ingmar Bergman’s hallucinogenic Persona; Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I am forever indebted to her for introducing me to an entire canon of work I’d likely never have encountered without her guidance (or, admittedly, her name-dropping).
Then there’s another canon of work I’d never know of were it not for Sontag’s essays and her intellectual mystique (the furor of her cultural passions, the near-impenetrability of her writing, that skunk-white stripe in that black mane): her fiction.
When we say we love someone, what’s implicit in that statement (if we mean it genuinely) is that we love the person with all their faults. We love the best of them and the worst of them. So to say I love Susan Sontag’s writing means I must come to terms with the fact that much of her fiction just isn’t that good.
It’s a personal judgment I’ve struggled with ever since I first decided to plow my way, like an icebreaker, through novels I’d been warned were cold and impenetrable; fiction too frozen in ideas to allow characters to live and breathe. What saved me from giving up at the start, I imagine, was starting in reverse, with her 2000 National Book Award-winning novel, In America, and, after it, 1992’s The Volcano Lover. (Her earlier fiction being hard to find in bookstores, I had little choice to but to read backwards.)
I didn’t understand what the problem was. Where others saw limp narratives, I saw historical novels in which time and place were the reason to keep reading. Where others complained about Sontag inserting her own thoughts, wedge-like, into the prose, I relished a writer daring enough to poke her head out from behind the curtain of history. I’d never before read contemporary historical fiction where the author begins her book with a “Chapter Zero,” in which she eavesdrops on a 19th-century dinner party in Poland and, in essence, walks us through the process of how a novelist transforms history into fiction. Or an author who’d step out of time, breaking a dramatic moment in which an 18th-century diplomat stands on the lip of a volcano for an aside on public suicide in the streets of 20th-century Manhattan.
I still consider The Volcano Lover and In America two of my favorite novels. I’m in love with their strangeness, their mixture of romance and critical thought, their language and style, the beguiling ways they flirt with our expectations of how a historical novel should sound and read. I stumbled away, awestruck, from my first reading of these two books certain I’d encountered not just a good novelist but a great one.
Then I read the first 50-odd pages of Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor. Then I read an excerpt from her second novel, Death Kit. Then, for fear of ruining the taste of Sontag’s last two novels, of my entire conception of her as a fiction writer, I decided to call it quits.
The recent release of Debriefing: Collected Stories by Sontag’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which brings together the stories in Sontag’s 1977 collection, I, etcetera, as well as several standalone pieces), spurred me to rethink my stance on Susan Sontag’s fiction. Yes, there was a selfish opportunity to re-read The Volcano Lover and In America, but there was also a reason to finally make my way through the bland and baggy early works. It was a chance for me to figure out, as someone unashamedly in love with Sontag’s work, what exactly went wrong.
It starts, I found, with reading her fiction chronologically. To do so transforms the mission from a search for what went wrong into a search for what went right; a chance to witness a writer’s skill grow over the years instead of wane. Nearly 40 years passed between the original publication of The Benefactor in 1963 and the publication of In America in 2000; in that span of time, it’s clear just how much Sontag transformed as writer of fiction. If one places the stories collected in Debriefing at the center of this, what emerges is something of a triptych in which the stories, many written during this span, act as the central panel on either side of which is Sontag the apprentice and Sontag the master.
No one reads The Benefactor for pleasure. Instead, one reads it out of a sense of duty, out of the desire to be comprehensive. A complete reading of the novel—memorably slow, memorably arduous—reveals what I understood the first time I flipped through its pages: the book is just plain dull.
One can argue the pros and cons of novels that rely too heavily on a character’s dreams, but in The Benefactor, dreams are really all there is. The entire novel is structured around a series of highly detailed dreams that haunt the cultural libertine Hippolyte: the “dream of two rooms,” the “dream of the unconventional party,” “the dream of the mirror,” to name but a few. We spend the novel following Hippolyte as he mingles with fellow enlightened Europeans and labors over the philosophical implications of his dream life. At one moment, Hippolyte proclaims, “What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need not enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit.”
Indeed, a novel in which dream leads to dream leads to dream leads to dream soon become masturbatory, to our detriment. (Alas, Hippolyte, you require the cooperation of one person to tolerate your dreams: the reader!) In the context of Sontag’s essays, The Benefactor reads like a way for Sontag to play with concepts she writes about in pieces like “The Aesthetics of Silence” (one of Hippolyte’s lines: “I am looking for silence, I am exploring the various styles of silence, and I wish to be answered by silence.”) and “Against Interpretation” (Hippolyte again: “Let nothing be interpreted. No part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse and to have one thing always mean something else!”). This is less a novel of ideas and more an idea of a novel, something just as cold and sterile and obscure as one of the narrator’s nighttime fantasias.
Death Kit, published four years after The Benefactor, takes these dreams to such an extreme that the entire book reads like one long, uninterrupted dream. It, too, like a dream, fades away as soon as the reader awakes.
Our libertine is replaced by a humdrum advertising executive named Dalton “Diddy” Harron, a man Sontag describes as a mere “tenant” in his life (the ghost of an early suicide attempt hangs over his head). On a business trip to upstate New York, Diddy might or might not murder a railroad worker in a Raskolnikovian attempt at shattering societal norms. While some of the novel is dedicated to pursuing this mystery, the majority of it is spent following Diddy’s daily life (often in strange indented asides and bizarre shifts in tense). It’s slightly fantastical, deeply Kafkaesque, but undermined by the novel’s impossible length.
And here we see the chief problem with Sontag’s early novels: there’s not enough going on to warrant the real estate of a 300-page novel. While her intellectual ideas condense well into digestible essays (that, nevertheless, require fervent chewing beforehand), packed inside characters we’re expected to follow for hundreds of pages, they’re impossible.
And yet where Death Kit succeeds is at its close, where we get a glimpse of Sontag’s narrative style at its best. Walking through a train tunnel in an effort to prove to his blind wife, Helena, that he really did murder a railroad worker, Diddy finds himself, alone, in a surreal series of chambers, like the Catacombs of Paris, packed with corpses. Sontag’s frequent obsession with lists (see numerous entries in her two volumes of journals and notebooks, Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh) here takes on the shape of a macabre inventory of American history.
The earliest specimen Diddy could find belonged to the seventeenth century: a Pilgrim with a broad-brimmed hat, round stiff collar, breeches, and buckled shoes. But nearby, many modern types. A banker in a top hat and striped pants and cutaway coat. A boy in his Cub Scout uniform. A registered nurse. A policeman, one of New York’s Finest…In another room, only firemen. Decked out in their uniforms, with rubber boots to the tops of their thighs. Many with the huge, red, oval-brimmed hat that’s their trademark. Cocked on their skull; not so much rakishly as awkwardly, since the head, with or without meat and hair on it, tends to slump forward…Over there, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants—if one can trust the evidence of the uniform and the mask whose metal bars cover the dead man’s lean, contorted, well-preserved face.
It goes on. And on. And on. Restraint is something Sontag won’t discover until her last two novels. Taken as a piece on its own, however, this conclusion to Death Kit illustrates the strengths of Sontag’s shorter fiction.
According to Benjamin Taylor in his woefully brief introduction to Debriefing, Sontag’s short stories are “where we go to know Sontag most intimately.” It’s an apt word, considering that much of her short fiction feels of a piece with Sontag’s journals and notebooks.
Several stories, in fact, look and feel as if they were assembled from Sontag’s private scribblings, using diary entries, daily logs, and notes as methods for organizing narrative information. “Project for a Trip to China” tries to create a story from sparse notes and phrases and jottings (“Consider other possible permutations.”, “Chinese patience: Who assimilates whom?”, “Why not want to be good?”). So, too, does “Unguided Tour,” in which we find the source of that most iconic (and overused) of Sontag quotes: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “Old Complaints Revisited” takes the form of secret messages by an unnamed narrator intent on defecting from a cult-like organization. “Baby” is divided into one-sided conversations during therapy sessions between two parents and a psychologist in which they vent their frustrations with a son who appears to be both old and young at the same time. While these and other stories are as obscure as Sontag’s first two novels, it’s their brevity that gives them power, that allows the reader to more willingly engage with Sontag’s intellectual preoccupations.
Debriefing opens and closes with what, either deliberately or coincidentally, are two of Sontag’s most memorable, accessible, and human stories. The first, “Pilgrimage,” recounts a moment in Sontag’s youth when she and a friend paid a personal call to the German giant of letters Thomas Mann, then living in exile in southern California. There’s a humor in which Sontag retells the story of being in “the very throne room of the world in which I aspired to live.”
And Thomas Mann continued to talk, slowly, about literature. I remember my dismay better than what he said. I was trying to keep myself from eating too many cookies, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I did reach over and take one more than I had meant to. He nodded. Have another, he said. It was horrible. How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books.
Then there is “The Way We Live Now,” Sontag’s most well-known story (and rightly so). Built around a series of conversations between a group of friends in which the gaping hole, given no voice of his own, is the one friend ill with AIDS, “The Way We Live Now” strikes the perfect balance between formal inventiveness and emotional force. It’s appropriate this story comes at the end of a collection in which form and feeling appear at odds (with form usually winning the day). Here, feeling triumphs. Life triumphs. The story’s last line: “He’s still alive.”
Both The Volcano Lover and In America are the only two Sontag novels where characters feel like human beings instead of automatons. They’re also, curiously, the only two Sontag novels to fully entrench themselves in the female voice, to engage with women who feel alive with lust and rage and agency.
While the body of The Volcano Lover belongs to “the Cavaliere” (Sontag’s stand-in for the famed British diplomat and collector Sir William Hamilton), its spirit belongs to women, specifically his second wife, Emma (the future lover of Horatio Nelson, here simply “the Hero”). The Volcano Lover leaves no question that it’s concerns are about more than just Enlightenment masculinity, Enlightenment ideology. The magisterial final section of the novel, after the death of Hamilton, belongs to the voices of four women who were previously background characters: the Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine; Emma’s mother (posing as her maid), and Emma herself. But it’s the last monologue, written in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the revolutionary Italian poet executed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, that reads like an act of rebellion. It’s a scathing indictment of the story’s anti-republican heroes that leads up to the novel’s haunting final lines.
Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.
In America’s Maryna Zalenska, a stand-in for the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrates with her husband and son and several other compatriots to Anaheim, Calif., where they aim to start a commune. Typical of most commune-set novels, the utopian adventure doesn’t turn out as planned, and Helena leaves to rediscover herself as an actress in defiance of the trappings of her gender’s expectations. “Will American audiences accept the idea of a woman who leaves her husband and children not because she is wicked but because she is serious?” Maryna’s husband, Bogdan, asks himself late in the novel. (Even as he, in this new world, unearths his suppressed love of the male body.)
The obvious connection between these two late, mature novels is their reliance on history. Speaking to Charlie Rose in 2000 about In America, Sontag noted her use of history as “a trampoline” to “tell a great story that’s very resonant.” One gets the sense that, with the structure of the narrative already provided, Sontag was finally free to invent and reinvent at will while still satisfying the demands of a traditional story. The reader, too, feels this palpable freedom, this spirit of adventure, when reading The Volcano Lover and In America.
Sontag, with her typical self-awareness (or, critics would argue, her typical self-absorption), knew she was on to something with what would turn out to be her last novels. In that same Charlie Rose interview, she notes that most writers tend to do their best work in the first third or half of their writing careers. “I think my best work is now,” Sontag says. “I think these books are better. I think I’m freer. I think my writing is more expressive. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I think my access to myself has changed. I think I was going through a kind of narrow door, and now I’m going through a big wide gate.” She goes on to describe her younger self not as a storyteller so much as a ruminator; someone more interested in the process of consciousness than in making that consciousness accessible to those of us who live outside her mind.
We are grateful that Sontag changed and that we have for posterity these two powerful examples of her storytelling potential. Our only sadness about these novels (and this, too, is the measure of a lasting writer) is we won’t get any more.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival 2011, Michael Holroyd lamented — as aging biographers are wont to do — the decline of biography. “I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said. “But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button — the horror.”
While his take is self-consciously crankish, Holroyd’s suggestion that the computer represents a turning point in biographical writing carries some weight. After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.
Contemporary literature scholar Stephen Burn, who is currently editing the correspondence of David Foster Wallace, describes compiling emails as an “exercise in reverse engineering.” Since Wallace does not seem to have kept any of his emails, Burn has had to track down friends, colleagues, editors, and fans who have saved the emails he sent them. As a result, he finds himself “tracing lines backwards from published books, stories, and essays, to make visible the various dialogues along the way that led to the finished work.”
These problems are not unique to modern biographers. Papers can be lost, thrown away, or burned. But at least as far back as Cicero, writers have, with a wry wink to posterity, been careful to preserve copies of their letters. And their correspondents, whether out of sentimentality or shrewd financial planning, have stored received letters in the attic. Besides, although it’s gotten short shrift in recent years, paper is extraordinarily durable.
In contrast, what Burn identifies as “the real dark shadow cast over scholars by email correspondence” is the fickle nature of fast-changing technology. We may believe that recent history is safely tucked away in the digital fortress, but electronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters. Whether as a result of bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence, Burn and other scholars fear that “potentially great letters or exchanges [will be] locked within hard drives that can no longer be accessed.”
However, while the digital lag may have an impact in the short-term, the practical barriers can and will be overcome. Libraries across the world are already refining their digital archiving processes, using write-blockers and advanced search tools.
The more prescient question is this: How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?
In his end notes to his biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max of The New Yorker, writes that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature” and that “with the advent of email [Wallace’s] correspondence grew terser, less ambitious.” Burn echoes the same view, observing that “the major difference probably stems from the more rigidly linear format of some of his emails. Some of the great letters look like spiderweb art: in these notes, Wallace has written over the top of the letter he’s replying to, with comments between the lines, spiralling into the margins, running up to headers and down to the footers.”
The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.
Burn also highlights that “email makes minor exchanges proliferate — procedural courtesies, note responses that probably wouldn’t have merited an actual letter.” In 2004, Nora Ephron described the six stages of early email. She traces from Infatuation (“Who said letter writing was dead? Were they ever wrong! I’m writing letters like crazy for the first time in years.”), to confusion (“Add three inches to the length of your penis. The Democratic National Committee needs you. Virus Alert. FW: This will make you laugh.”), to disenchantment (“Help! I’m drowning.”) That she was so overwhelmed by her own mail bodes ill for biographer, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.
While letters require a commitment of time, thought, and a little money, we unthinkingly send masses of brief, entirely trivial emails. Sontag used email for less than a decade, yet the Sontag archive in UCLA includes 17,198 emails. It’s difficult to contemplate the mass of digital material that faced Steve Jobs’s biographer Walter Issacson. It’s even more difficult to envision the amount of content that will be left behind by lifelong users of computers, tablets, and smartphones.
However, although email might make the life of the researcher more difficult and less romantic, we should be wary of mistaking different for worse.
In 1969, Foucault asked whether, if an editor found a laundry list jotted down in Nietzsche’s notebook, it should be considered a work or not. Similarly, should an email that has clearly been written with little thought to style be valued differently to an elaborately crafted letter?
Max may regret that Wallace’s writing became terse when he used email, yet it surely casts light on the life and work. It could be that Wallace, as he lapsed back into the depression that eventually killed him, simply didn’t want to write more effusively. Or that in emails he didn’t feel the same obligation to cloak his feelings in craft. Whatever the reason, clearly the expansive and carefully-wrought writing of Wallace’s novels did not come entirely naturally.
For many others, however, email is a light-hearted form. Benjamin Moser highlights his delight at realizing “that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading ‘Whassup?’”
But is this more than an endearing quirk? Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and most recently Penelope Fitzgerald, suggests that “when people are at their most frivolous, superficial, gregarious, and chatty is often when they are most revealing about themselves,” highlighting the interplay between “your secret self, your solitary self, your nighttime self, your gregarious, chatty e-mailing self.”
What does it tell us about the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” that following a career largely dedicated to war, illness, and exploitation, she was playful, tender, slightly wacky in her emails? Moser highlights that she was lonely in her last years, and was “elated to be in such easy touch” with her friends. Yet acquaintances she emailed seemed unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms. Do the emails reinforce what one already suspects from Sontag’s prolific diary-writing; that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?
The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.
Image Credit: Flickr/greggoconnell
In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him:
I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?”
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.
Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads.
For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible.
Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor:
My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired.
“Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain.
At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference:
I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time.
Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”