Monday, September 15, 2008


DFW lies in the arms of sleep's cousin. I think suddenly of the work of David Lewis on modal realism. My friend Peter King summarises:

When I profess realism about possible worlds, I mean to be taken literally. Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing. If asked what sort of thing they are, I cannot give the kind of reply my questioner probably expects: that is, a proposal to reduce possible worlds to something else.
I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that possible worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on at them.
(Lewis [1973], p.85)

This passage contains, or implies, the heart of David Lewis's modal realism. It explicitly states three of his six central doctrines about possible worlds, and implies at least one of the remaining three. The three doctrines explicitly formulated are:

  • 1. Possible worlds exist -- they are just as real as our world;
  • 2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world -- they differ in content, not in kind;
  • 3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic -- they are irreducible entities in their own right.
From these three claims (and from the second in particular) we can see that, when we talk of our own world as being the only actual world, we cannot be asserting that our world has a special property not found in (or instantiated by) any other world - the property of actuality - but that we must be using the term `actual' much as we use the term `here' or `now' -- to indicate our position. This gives us Lewis's fourth doctrine:
  • 4. `Actual' is indexical. When we distinguish our world from others by claiming that it alone is actual, we mean only that it is ours -- we live here.
(more here)

Here, where we live, DFW wrote unselfconsciously about the elitism of professional tennis, the sport he knew best. Writing about Michael Joyce, then #64 in the world, at the Canadian Open, he said that he realised that he did not even play the same game as J; that he did not mention that he had played tennis, that Joyce, being a nice guy, would probably have been happy to hit a few balls back and forth, but to do so, to go on the same court with him, would have been obscene. (Here's DFW on Roger Federer as Religious Experience; an assessment of DFW as sportswriter can be found here.)

Here, where we live, DFW did not bring the same standards to writing. He disliked texts that show contempt for the reader, whether by being unabashedly avant-garde or unabashedly commercial. He wanted to write texts that would challenge readers but be enjoyable enough to encourage them to take up the challenge - no easy proposition.

I contemplate this; I then contemplate, with some bafflement, critical response to DFW's collection of stories, Oblivion, generally perceived as difficult. Wyatt Mason, in the LRB, described them as "uncompromisingly difficult", went on to gesture at the immense effort required of the reader to puzzle out what was going on:

Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands?

and concluded:

Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.

This (just to be clear) was a sympathetic review defending DFW from misunderstanding and hostility from James Wood.

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It's a rum old place. Oblivion doesn't strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy's Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I've no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

If David Lewis was right, there are an infinite number of possible worlds as real as this one; there are an infinite number of possible worlds with a person genetically identical to DFW. If you believe in modal realism, suicide in the particular world you happen to inhabit probably doesn't look like that big a deal: in this particular world, through circumstances beyond my control, I find myself cabined, cribbed, confined, but an infinite number of alter egos have different histories. If there is any set of circumstances at all in which a person genetically identical to me can be a great writer, that person actually exists in at least one other possible world. Perhaps there is no set of circumstances in which this person, here, now, can match that alter ego or even come close. But if those infinite others all exist, perhaps it doesn't matter if one dies here, now. (I'm not convinced that this is rational - it's a bit like saying that I don't mind dying as long as my twin has a wonderful life on Mars - why exactly does bringing my twin into the picture make a difference? Rational or not, the thought that this particular botched self might not be all that there is is strangely comforting. [I am not, of course, referring at this point to DFW.])

To the best of my knowledge, David Lewis was unique in being a true believer in modal realism. Most people who work in this field use possible worlds as some kind of figure of speech; they don't think they're as real as Canada or Mars. So there's no reason whatever to think that DFW was a modal realist. On the contrary, he probably thought that this world, here, now, was all there is. This world, here, now, was self-evidently not good for him; there were things he needed that it didn't give him. But he seems to have thought that in this world, here, now, many people had been cheated by the educational system into thinking they didn't like literature; that many people could be brought to surpass what they thought they could do, if someone was willing to take the trouble. We were lucky to have had him.


Mithridates said...
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Mithridates said...
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Evan Lavender-Smith said...

I think that many readers -- even otherwise pretty smart readers -- cannot seem to accept that density or maximalism in prose or thought might actually serve as an invitation to something very simple: healthy mental activity. When people speak of difficulty in Wallace -- in Wallace especially -- they are speaking either out of 1) ignorance, or 2) fear. I think it's the latter that is most common, at least where I live: so many of us are so very certain that beauty and truth must arise from what is simple and obvious, so many are afraid of entertaining the possibility that the discovery of beauty or truth might require a bit of patience or thought or activity. One of the very last things I said to him was that as I've become more engaged in politics I've become more willing to cast my thinking about writers and readers in political terms: the vast majority of "writers of literary fiction" and "readers of literary fiction" are staunch conservatives, pure and simple, unwilling, unwavering, they know what they like and they want to keep it that way. He didn't really buy it. I don't know that I do either: most readers crave the kind of boldness and difference and complexity that requires something more than they're accustomed to giving, they just don't know that they crave it because they don't seek it out and rarely if ever happen upon it. That was one of his greatest gifts to his readers, as I see it: he reminded so many people how fun it can be to think when they read.

Helen DeWitt said...

Mith, what are you doing?

evan, Wallace often writes very long sentences, but it seems to me that the reader who trusts him normally finds that it all makes sense in the end - and that the sense is not, for the most part, one that is difficult to grasp. I got the impression from Mason that he was somehow taking the simple fact of sentence length as in itself a source of difficulty. Another perceived source of difficulty was the use of an unsympathetic narrator - both Mason and Wood seem to have thought this would put readers off.

It's a bit depressing to see this kind of thing. Modern readers are not very likely to catch allusions to Greek myths, but they tend to be sophisticated in recognising the clichés and jargon of our time; I wonder how many would really find Wallace difficult if they had not been told that this was a very very difficult writer.

You may be right that readers are put off by ignorance or fear.

Anonymous said...

"Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Regardless of how difficult or challenging or worthwhile or masturbatory DFW's prose was, he was one of the few who worked hard to push the novel someplace new. I think his work fell victim in some degree to marketing. He was marketed as a "challenging new writer for our time," and it became very difficult to read what he actually wrote through that hype. In another possible world, perhaps everything is the same except he got Alice Sebold's publicist, and is now a beloved author of the Winfrey set.

Maybe I'm just a grim writer who believes few readers see anything that publicists don't tell them to see, but I like to imagine a world where the "hard" novels just get to be novels.

nsiqueiros said...


Mithridates said...

Sorry, Helen. I didn't like my comment. The point of it was that I don't understand Mason. He tells us in his latest post to read Emerson on Goethe and Montaigne, but if he looked at Emerson beyond the self-help nuggets, he might see that Emerson can actually be quite difficult to follow. It's difficult to restate some of his 'arguments' beyond plucking out quotations. Montaigne and Goethe could also be considered difficult. Montaigne wrote a very long book of essays with lots of quotations from classical sources and arguments that evolve in complex ways; Goethe wrote one of the most autistic play ever, Faust Part 2. Goethe in particular could be extremely ungenerous. If we used Mason's standards here to judge literary merit not only would there be no Goethe, there'd be no Emerson to write about him. Mason admires Rimbaud. I don't see how someone who admires Rimbaud could demand that contemporary authors be more generous. (Not that I myself think DFW ungenerous.)

Helen, question: are you implying in that the cliches and jargon are in DFW or in Wood and Mason?

Evan Lavender-Smith said...

I don't know, I can't read Wood and haven't read much Mason. I suppose I was just riffing. (These are among my first www blog comments ever, Helen; I've had an incredibly difficult weekend and this seems to help somehow ... I'm occupied.) I believe I have difficulty with the word difficulty when it's used to talk about writing. The pejorative connotations: tedious, impenetrable, etc. Some of the writers you mention, like Kant and Wittgenstein, are not particularly difficult, as I see it -- they are challenging, certainly, and the excitement of the challenge, for me, tends to defeat any occasional "difficulty." Wallace never challenges me as a reader the way Kant or Wittgenstein does, but I believe he challenged form and thought in similar ways. I'm just not a fan of the word, I guess: difficulty. Is Bernhard difficult? No way. Anyone can read and understand Bernhard. (This despite what Ben Marcus says; I thought that was a huge misstep in his essay: Correction, now there's a difficult novel. I remember feeling like he hadn't even read the book.) Does Bernhard challenge me as a reader? Not really. But Bernhard and Wallace (and Kant and Wittgenstein) all challenge presuppositions about form and thought and language, they all challenge themselves, they all challenge me as a writer, certainly. In my experience as a reader of Ulysses, for example, I feel occasional challenge and little difficulty; in my experience as a reader of Finnegans Wake -- and lots of pretty famous 20th-century poetry -- I feel regular difficulty and occasional challenge. (This speaks to my deficiencies as a particular reader, I'm sure, and is probably not generalizable. I'd like to imagine that Finnegans Wake will some day, after I've become a better reader, move a bit further into the challenging column.) Infinite Jest was very rarely difficult for me, as a reader, and, as reader, challenging only in its length -- I had other non-reading responsibilities while reading, etc. And I'm certainly no gifted reader, only an enthusiastic one. As a writer, on the other hand, Infinite Jest and Oblivion have posed monumental challenges for me, harrowing difficulties.

Mithridates said...

While I'm at it, Wood seems to like unsympathetic narrators and characters. I remember his praise of Roth's Sabbath's Theater and Hamsun's Hunger. Perhaps Wood's problem is that Wallace's narrators put him off because they so thoroughly embody these voices, speaking in what he would call a debased language.

Anonymous said...

I know some really stupid people who like to read wallace, and some smart ones. But the really stupid ones are like, really stupid.

Anonymous said...

Roger Penrose in a book from the nineteen eighties offered, maybe he was quoting, an experiment: record to the minutest detail the components of the human body, transport that information to a far-away place, say Mars, and then put that info to work and design, construct a human body replica, atom-by-atom, proton-by-proton or whatever happens to be the most basic element. Then what? Would there be two of you?; would you just destroy the original and call it transport? And then wake up in the new exact replica?

I wonder whether taking comfort in or embracing the possibility of nearly parallel selves is rooted in the same sort of, spare me, metaphysics that allows the Penrose puzzle to make sense at all.

Second and generally since I just stumbled here recently, Arabic and Hebrew are interesting -- though I can't speak at all for the latter, just assuming similarity -- but I get the impression that while sentence structure is weird and some of the verb forms in Arabic are fun -- the one for verbs of color, for instance -- they're not really that radical face-to-face with English grammar.

When I think of big breaks the two languages that come to my mind (and probably no one else's) are Thai, because it might not have pronouns (think translating Descartes here, the imagine the historical impact) and Klamath, because it might not have verb stems, or its verb stems might always require two fundamental parts which could be interchangeable.

This just counts if distance of difference is what we're going for.