Back to Basics

I’ve been a neglectful blogger, so I thought I might sign up for Robert Lanham’s “Internet Era Writing Course.” Despite my absence from Twitter, I’ve completed an embarrassing number of the prerequisites:

ENG: 232WR—Advanced Tweeting: The Elements of Droll

LIT: 223—Early-21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less

ENG: 102—Staring Blankly at Handheld Devices While Others Are Talking

ENG: 301—Advanced Blog and Book Skimming

ENG: 231WR—Facebook Wall Alliteration and Assonance

LIT: 202—The Literary Merits of Lolcats

LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption

On a slightly more serious note, check out the legal issues raised by D.T. Max’s moving profile of David Foster Wallace in the New Yorker.

For example, this vignette suggests the gulf between retribution and remedy:

[Wallace’s] relationship with Mary Karr was volatile. Wallace got a tattoo of a heart with Mary’s name on it. He signed his letters to her “Young Werther.” He proposed to her. They fought. . . . They split up. One day, according to Karr, he broke her coffee table. She billed him a hundred dollars. He paid her and said that the remains of the table were now his. Karr told him that she’d used them for firewood, and that all he’d bought was “the brokenness.”

Anyone interested in the scholarship of footnotes should find this denoument to the story heartening:

Wallace’s literary frustrations contrasted with his growing personal happiness. In 2002, [years after his relationshp with Karr ended,] he began dating Karen Green, a visual artist. . . . They fell in love. Wallace put a strikeout through Mary’s name on his tattoo and an asterisk under the heart; farther down he added another asterisk and Karen’s name, turning his arm into a living footnote.

For various reasons, the story reminded me of Yeats’s great poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion. Like Yeats, Wallace found himself devoid of inspiration at various points in his career:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last, being but a broken man,

I must be satisfied with my heart . . .


Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Yeats can triumphantly describe his “masterful images” even as he stares at their ugly origins. Wallace was too self-deflating for that, and he struggled to turn his boredom into the topic of his last work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he turned to tax administration to find the quintessence of this emotion:

From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, which he never finished—the “Long Thing,” as he referred to it . . . . His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript—which Little, Brown plans to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment. . . .

As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

I like this sage advice, because it leads to something like James Grimmelmann’s insightful tribute to Wallace here.

[Wallace saw our] choice as one between a retreat to pre-ironic sincerity, a soul-killing brain-numbing embrace of the Entertainment of irony, or oblivion. He vacillated between the first two while he tried to find some way of merging them for as long as he could, and then he gave in to the third.

But I think there’s another way—there has to be. Not backwards, away from irony. And not just forward into irony’s lotus garden. No, forward into irony and out the other side. There’s real political analysis in the Daily Show; there’s something improbably human in a lolcat. These are not media of resignation. There’s something vital and alive in a mashup; YouTube slash videos are not a surrender to the idiocy of the Image. These media are sincere; these media are ironic. They’re sincere in their acceptance of irony.

So perhaps there’s some rationale for a curriculum like that ironically proposed by Lanham. As Roger Scruton has argued, irony and forgiveness are the great gifts of our culture. You don’t have to have it all figured out to do a blog post, a status update, or a tweet. You may just be making noise. But however self-indulgent they seem, the new media consistently teach that we’re but small voices in a huge conversation. The “great conversation” of the great books fades into history, but we can hope to find new points of reference for our moral judgments and communities. . . .and forgive ourselves when we fail.

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