The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Susan Sontag

Am in the midst of reading—no, devouring—Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s diary. What’s unexpected is how devastatingly charming it is. Her earnestness as a child, her intermittent goofiness as a young adult. Her passion throughout. Sontag at age 14:

I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state . . . should be a strong centralized one with goverment control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and aged. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

At 16:

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless . . . just keep on making good grades . . . and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today—long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; the Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harted in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) . . .

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

At 23:

Tonight David [i.e., David Rieff, her son and the diary’s editor, at the time three years old]—on the dressing table in the bathroom, being prepared for bed by Rose—said: “How do people have two husbands? When one dies?” I answered: “That’s right. If one dies, you can marry again if you want.” To which he answered: “Well then, when Daddy dies I’ll marry you.” I was so startled + delighted that I could only reply: “That’s the nicest thing you ever said to me, David.”

He seemed quite calm, but I was almost in tears . . .

At 25:

Tonight (last night!) at Paul’s place I reely wuz speeking French. For owers ‘n ‘owers, with him and his very sweet parents. What great fun!!

. . . and . . .

I am scared, numbed from the marital wars—that deadly, deadening combat which is the opposite, the antithesis of the sharp painful struggles of lovers. Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills, and wet blankets.

It’s a novel, but better, because it’s all real. She knows herself; she doesn’t know herself. She figures it out; she forgets what she has figured out. All the intellect, all the striving, which seemed so fearful and offputting while Sontag was alive, are now revealed as no more than weapons that she took up because she had to, in order to live as she wanted to live, that is, as an intellectual in a world that did not respect homosexual women. With honesty, which neither her mother nor her husband nor even her lovers commend in her, she takes hold of that Proteus her self and simply keeps her hold on it, until its cascades of change slow and at last it reveals its nature to her. It seems to have been stipulated in the terms of her success that she could never write its story except privately. This is the novel she was willing to give up criticism to write. The trick of it is that in her journal she had already written it.

Later. I’ve finished. I’m bereft. I can’t believe I have to wait another year to read the next volume. I think the following was in the New York Times Magazine excerpt from the diaries a couple of years ago, but it’s still amazing:

My need desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.

It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me—I feel—a license.

And this, I think, I could have written in my own journal last week:

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

In Sontag’s honor, I will try to be a little more monstrous.

“The great postmodern uncertainty that we live in”

I was very sorry to read this morning that David Foster Wallace died on Friday.

A fan of his work, I was lucky enough to interview him for the Boston Globe in October 2003 about his book Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ [Infinity]. The interview took place in his room at a hotel that he was briefly staying at, in New York. According to my notes, when I arrived, Wallace “had been air conditioning the room in preparation for a nap, but he kindly stopped the fan, for the sake of the tape recorder. He was wearing a blue Pomona College sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off. Before the interview started, he served me a glass of club soda and applied a nicotine patch to his upper left arm, over which he put an armband. During the interview, whenever I managed to empty my club soda, he refilled it.”

He was a little wary at first; it seemed that he didn’t expect that I would have read his book. When he found out that I had, his first question was, “Does it seem halfway clear to you?” and once we started talking about the math, he seemed to relax and, as I wrote in my notes, was “certainly more self-composed than this reporter,” who was star-struck. Throughout, he was focused on helping me interview him. When, for example, he called a book that sentimentalized a mathematician’s life story “horseshit,” he immediately upbraided himself for saying something unquotable: “Shit fuck fuck shit—none of it can be used.” He repeatedly asked if he was answering my questions satisfactorily and repeatedly apologized for not being more clear or more concise.

The published interview, as is conventional with the genre, was an edited and condensed version of the conversation we actually had, which went into much more detail on the math and a bit more into what really intrigued me: parallels between the mathematics of infinity, as resolved by the nineteenth-century mathematician Georg Cantor, and certain ideas in Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest that for lack of a better adjective might be called “religious.” For example, during one exchange, part of which does appear in the published interview, Wallace and I were talking about whether numbers exist outside the minds of the mathematicians who think about them. People who think numbers do have an independent reality are called Platonists, and I wanted to ask Wallace if he was one, because he’d been a bit cagey about his own beliefs in the book.

CRAIN: So are you a Platonist? Do you think mathematical concepts exist?

WALLACE: [Pause.] How, if this is going to be in the article, how would you provide enough context for the question to make sense?

CRAIN: That would be the challenge for the—

WALLACE: Personally, between you and me, yeah, I’m a Platonist, and I think, I personally think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics, and that’s not something I can defend, it’s just something I’ve felt in my tummy since I was a little kid, but how exactly to try to make sense of that and to fit it in any kind of a working philosophy, much less cross the street to buy a loaf of bread is a different matter. In a certain sense, really really in the ultimate sense, it doesn’t matter what I think, what the book is about is what Cantor and Godel thought. The fact that Kurt Godel was a Platonist, when Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem—

At that moment, aptly but unfortunately, the tape ran out, and I didn’t notice for a few minutes. Here is my memory of what we talked about in the interval, according to the notes I took at the time: Since Wallace had introduced Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, I asked about the Infinite Jest character Pemulis (which, because I asked, Wallace said that he pronounced with a long e, but that I was free to pronounce however I liked)—I asked about Pemulis’s reassurance to Todd Possalthwaite that “you can trust math,” (p. 1071) and how Godel shows that this turns out not to be true. Wallace responded that it had been a long time since Infinite Jest, but that he had intended Pemulis to be “one of the book’s Antichrists,” and so readers shouldn’t take anything he said unskeptically. Then I asked about the physicality of Wallace’s fiction and how it felt to write about something as abstract as math. His first answer was to ask me if his fiction was any more physical than anyone else’s. Shortly after that, I noticed that the tape wasn’t moving, and flipped it over.

Somewhat later in the conversation, we came back to the topic, because of a line in Everything and More that I was curious about. (You probably have to have read Wallace’s book to follow every twist and turn in his reply, but the glory of the internet is that paragraphs don’t have to be perfectly intelligible to everyone to be worth posting.)

CRAIN: One question we haven’t really talked about is, you have a line where you say, “analogies to certain ideas of God are obvious.”

WALLACE: The book is rather odd, because there’s kind of the opening straw-boater-and-cane chapter, where you’re kind of trying to give a general overview about why this whole thing is going to be kind of mind-bending. I think the idea is that in the anthropology of religion, you basically build an idea of god by simply removing all the limitations you see, all the limitations and imperfections you see in the real world around you, is that what we’re talking about? And that infinity is kind of the same thing. Everything’s limited—imagine something without that. Probably a Kroneckerian [i.e., someone who doubts the independent existence of mathematical concepts—CC] would say, infinity and god are the same sort of thing, they’re pie-in-the sky dreams of people who haven’t adjusted to the ineluctability of limit in the universe and so like to dream of something without that, and it’s really just a unicorn. We’re just sticking various concepts together.

You have an odd facial expression when the person is answering the question because it usually looks like stark incomprehension. Did that make any sense at all?

CRAIN: Yeah yeah yeah.

WALLACE: Is the part of the book that I think your question’s referring to what it’s referring to?

CRAIN: Yeah. There’s a part in Infinite Jest, I don’t know which character it is, talking about, having trouble with the Higher Power and AA, and having to accept that— I think it’s Gately—that if he has a merely technical response, it will eventually work.

WALLACE: Interesting.

CRAIN: And I was sort of relating that to the idea of infinity as being mysterious and then Cantor coming along and having this technical apparatus for interfacing with it.

WALLACE: My guess, and again I’ve got to confess I don’t remember Infinite Jest very well, is that Gately’s talking about certain spiritual realities, and what you have to do to cultivate a relationship in a churchgoing or twelve-step-program-going versus, um, . . . You could say then that the whole agenda of this book [Everything and More] is very—diametrically?— different. We want not just to have a technical understanding of this. ‘Cause it really could be a booklet and could start at the last chapter and simply give you these . . . And there’s a certain interest about it. And in fact you really don’t need calculus to understand, for instance, Cantor’s diagonalization. Helps to know a little bit about the philosophy of math when you get into Cantor’s paradox and the Continuum Hypothesis and stuff. Much of the stuff in the book that’s hard in a math way is just providing context. Cantor just didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this. He was very much part of this math world. And to be honest, the whole reason for doing that is that it was the only way to write about this in a way that hadn’t been done before. And seemed to me to be somewhat worthwhile and was an interesting challenge. I sure wouldn’t say, if you’re interested in Cantor, just read the last chapter. I don’t think you can really understand Cantor if you don’t know something about Dedekind and the schnitt method, because the two of them, well whatever, they’re really twin towers. But he [Dedekind] doesn’t get much billing. He did a lot more for solidifying math, because he came up with a way to define irrationals that’s absolutely clean as a whistle.

Whereas Cantor, yeah, codifies the transfinite, but Cantor’s paradox is the first step into Godel’s incompleteness and self-reference. It’s at once this beautiful climax of the two hundred years before it and the first note of the funeral dirge for math as something that you can just, ‘You know what, we can explain the entire universe mathematically. All we have to do is come up with the right axioms and the right derivation rules.’ I mean, Cantor’s paradox starts the wheel of self-reference.

I don’t know if you know much about Godel’s incompleteness theorem. But in a lay sense, Godel is able to come up mathematically with a theorem that says, ‘I am not provable.’ And it’s a theorem, which means that math is either not consistent or it’s not complete, by definition. Packed in. He is the devil, for math.

Cantor’s paradox, that whole ‘If it’s not a member of the set, it is a member of the set,’ and then Russell’s paradox about twenty years later, those were the first two . . . You know, when you start coming on a really interesting theme in a piece of music, you usually hear it in echo notes that foreshadow it, those are the foreshadowings. And I don’t imagine Godel would have come up with the self-reference loop if it hadn’t been for Cantor and Russell. [Sotto voce] Whatever. You’re not interested.

CRAIN: When some of the technical questions about infinity are answered, this other abyss opens up.

WALLACE: Yeah. Infinity was the great albatross for math. Really ever since calculus. Infinitesimals were horseshit, and everybody knew they were horseshit. But the limits thing used natural language stuff like ‘approaches,’ which math isn’t supposed to do. So it’s this great shell game. Weierstrass, Dedekind and Cantor close all those holes, and it’s beautiful, and at the same time they open what turns out to be a much worse one, and that’s Godel. . . .

After Godel, the idea that mathematics was not just a language of god but a language we could decode to understand the universe and understand everything, I mean, that doesn’t work any more. It’s part of the great postmodern uncertainty that we live in. Very few people know about it.

CRAIN: Yeah, yeah. It’s a chilling way for the book to end.

WALLACE: The book ends very abruptly, because you come to the shore of an ocean I’m not even going to dip a toe into, because then we’re into three hundred more pages. . . .

I can’t think of any other contemporary novelist who thought about such philosophical questions with the same combination of depth, rigor, and feeling.

My first lipstick-wearing pig

At the risk of dignifying an absurdity with attention, I happen to remember exactly when I first heard about pigs who wore lipstick. I first came across the turn of phrase in the Reagan-appointed Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit Richard A. Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, which I reviewed for The Nation in 2002. In chapter 6, a reprint of an essay originally published in 1998, Posner discussed the literary criticism of Wayne Booth and why he found it heavy-handed:

To prove the inescapability of the ethical in any final aesthetic judgment on a work of literature, even when it is a brief lyric, Booth does something very strange—I am tempted to say desperate: he changes the end of the second stanza of Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” so that feeding on peerless eyes becomes stroking peerless thighs. But this is aesthetic butchery. The imagery of devouring (mostly poison) is pervasive in the poem, and this gives the image of feeding on the peerless eyes a resonance and hint of menace that Booth’s image of stroking thighs lacks. The substitution changes an image of great emotional power—because of the fusion of devouring with seeing—that is integral to the poem’s pattern of imagery into an irruption of soft-core porn that breaks the spell created by the poet. Not that pornography can’t be literature; but the “Ode on Melancholy” is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick. Everything in its place.

To which one today feels obliged to assent, grimly, Indeed. In my review, “License to Ink,” I called these moments of bravura by Posner “highly entertaining” and I wrote of this passage in particular that it contained “a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered.” Lipsticked pigs were new to me at the time, but since then I’ve seen them often in the prose of pundits, no doubt because they all make a point of reading my reviews and Posner’s books. (Kidding! I understand the image has been around for ages. I’m only pretending to be grandiose.) I leave it to John McCain to demonstrate that Posner was actually thinking neither of John Keats nor Wayne Booth nor even Immanuel Kant but only of a certain Alaskan.

Tangled up in Wilkie Collins

Emerson Bennett, Wild Scenes on the Frontiers, p. 254

“In Praise of Spiders,” my essay on Wilkie Collins, on the occasion of Vintage republishing his novel The Woman in White in the U.K., appears in the 11 September 2008 issue of the London Review of Books. You have to be a subscriber to read it online. Please do subscribe! It pays my bills.

UPDATE (Sept. 3): Bonus! In the very same issue of the LRB, the novelist, friend of Steamboats, and fellow blogger Liz Brown has written “Miss Lachrymose,” a review of a new Doris Day biography by David Kaufman. Liz takes on Charles Manson, one of the Andrews sisters armed with a baseball bat, and the mystery of identity in singing. Don’t miss!

Come back to the mall, Huck honey

I haven’t yet read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, but it isn’t necessary to, in order to see the bankruptcy of Walter Kirn’s review of it in the 17 August 2008 New York Times Book Review. Kirn begins by declaring himself a philistine. He is appalled that Wood is on familiar terms with Homer, Auden, and Ian McEwan. He litters his review with ad hominem mockery, calling Wood “vicarish” and quipping that Wood “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.” I happen to be in favor of intermittent viciousness in book reviews, but let’s be serious here for a moment: Kirn is making fun of Wood for being the sort of person who reads a lot of books. Perhaps Kirn has misjudged the audience for a review of a work of literary criticism?

Little matter is mixed with this impertinency. In an attempt to indict Wood’s method, Kirn writes:

Take his disquisition on detail, which comes down first to asserting its importance, then to questioning its all-importance, and then, after serving up a list of some of his very favorite fictional details, to defining the apt, exquisite detail much as a judge once defined obscenity: as something he knows when he sees it.

This indeed sounds like a clincher, except that Kirn has just described E. M. Forster’s method in Aspects of the Novel (unwittingly, no doubt—no such lumber in his study), and that book remains a classic. If the same method falters in Wood’s hands, we need to be told why. By this point, few of Kirn’s readers will trust his mere assertions.

Perhaps the review’s only substantive claim is Kirn’s complaint that Wood neglects “story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” I haven’t read Johnson’s novel, so I’ll set it to one side. But I’m not a fan of Kerouac, and I think it could be argued that what makes Huckleberry Finn great is not Twain’s phonetic rendering of dialect but rather the sort of thing Wood prizes: the chance to follow a mind as it works out what it thinks of a social world. I think it could be argued, in fact, that the phonetic rendering of dialect is something that Twain’s modern readers agree to endure.

There is an issue here worth debating: If one praises a novel for “absorbing the anarchic,” ought the emphasis to be on the absorption or on the anarchy? My inclination is for the former. After all, we hardly need resort to novels to experience anarchy. Still, all things being equal, one probably prefers to read novelists who have managed to absorb a little more anarchy than others. In a recent review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel praised O’Neill’s description of a Google Earth tour, writing that “The passage is exciting simply because it represents new territory, or at least new subject matter, claimed for fiction.” But it’s important to keep in mind that in practice all things rarely are equal. The flotsam of life sometimes appears in a novel not because the writer’s consciousness has made a new sense of it, but because he hasn’t. It’s then merely a distraction.

Indeed, in complaining that Wood overlooks “the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular,” etc., Kirn may be guilty of special pleading. In a review of Kirn’s novel The Unbinding in the New York Times Book Review of 11 February 2007, Matt Weiland wrote:

This is what Kirn does best—keen observation of American social fissures and class dynamics along with an ear for the jaunty rhythms of contemporary talk. . . . But this sort of thing, however well done, risks descending into a torrent of timely references, the sort of rage for information that James Wood has criticized as substituting for character in some contemporary fiction. Want to know what kind of car the characters drive? The Unbinding has a Ford Galaxy, a Cadillac, a Ranger, a Jetta, a Hyundai, a Dodge, a Civic and an Acura. Where they spend their time? There are mentions of Applebee’s, Costco, Fuddruckers, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Saks, Starbucks and Taco Bell. What they watch or listen to? Blue Man Group, Drew Carey, Tom Cruise, Neil Diamond, Madonna, Oprah, .38 Special and Bo Bice all make appearances. This may chime with Kirn’s aim . . . and it certainly fits with his theme. But it makes a short book feel like a long walk at the mall.