March 16, 2009
Healthy and Sickly

There’s been a good deal in the book sections lately about the novelist David Foster Wallace, a depressive who last year hanged himself where his wife would be sure to find him. Pity struggles with disgust. Circumstances may have offered some excuse, but on the surface this appears to have been, among other things, a particularly nasty display of passive aggression.

A long posthumous profile in the New Yorker this month put Wallace in the category, or at least the company, of such other novelists as John Barth, Don DeLillo, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon. All of them write what Albert Jay Nock once described, in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, as sickly literature:

As Goethe remarked, all eras in a state of decline or dissolution are subjective, while in all great eras which have been really in a state of progression, every effort is directed from the inward to the outward world; it is of an objective nature. I have always believed, as Goethe did, that here one comes on a true sense of the word classic.

Work done in the great progressive eras — the work of the Augustan and Periclean periods, the work of the Elizabethans, of Erasmus, Marot, Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne — one accepts these as classic, not at all because they are old, but because they are objective and therefore strong, sound, joyous, healthy. Work done in an era of decadence is subjective, and therefore with the rarest and most fragmentary exceptions pathological, weak, bizarre, unhealthy. Indeed as Goethe suggested, in the interest of clearness one might very well make a clean sweep of all terms like classic, modernist, realist, naturalist and substitute the simple terms healthy and sickly.

Hence it was the symptomatic character of artistic practice both in Europe and America that chiefly interested me. In Europe I saw a good deal of “modernist” French painting, done in the ’twenties by Pascin, Soutine, Picasso, de Segonzac, de la Fresnaye, Metzinger, Dufy and others. In literature I also nibbled gingerly at specimens of subjectivity in excelsis furnished by Proust, Laforgue, Dujardin and practitioners of the “stream of consciousness” principle. One’s presumptions upon any society from which such work could emanate and get itself accepted, were inescapable.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at March 16, 2009 05:46 PM
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I wouldn't call Proust "sickly" literature. Any writer who shoots it out at dawn with a critic has my deepest respect.

Posted by: Peter on March 17, 2009 3:00 PM

I would argue that Pynchon is neither sickly nor decadent. And what would Nock, whom I admire, say about Rushdie? If Rushdie and Pynchon are sickly, decadent, and non-lasting, then give me more!

It's an objective fact that experience is subjective. To portray the subjective experience without the pretense that it could be described historically, sociologically, or in some other fashion objectively is not, I claim, decadent, but self-aware. To realize the magickal nature of quotidian experience and portray it realistically is, I believe, indication of a very high art.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on March 18, 2009 3:00 AM
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