Monday, December 05, 2011

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner, out of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House, 2011), talking about the narrative impossibility of some grand percentage of one’s experience, periods of “pure transition . . . possessed of no intrinsic content,” periods ascribed, albeit only in retrospect, with “a sense of directionality,” pointing toward the eventual arrival of what will subsequently provide their definition, periods Lerner calls “dilated, detached, strangely self-sufficient,” and adding quickly, “that’s not really right”—for such amorphous reaches leveraged up out of the continuum can only be defined negatively:
Not the little lyric miracle and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time. But this was true only for the duration of one of these seemingly durationless periods; figure and ground could be reversed, and when one was in the midst of some new intensity, kiss or concussion, one was suddenly composed exclusively of such moments, burning always with this hard, gemlike flame. But such moments were equally impossible to represent precisely because they were ready-made literature, because the ease with which they could be represented entered and canceled the experience where life was supposed to be its most immediate, when the present managed to differentiate itself with violence, life was at its most generic, following the rules of Aristotle, and did not make contact with the real but performed such contact . . .
Later in the novel, Lerner quotes Ortega y Gasset saying something equally fraught with doubt regarding the veracity of captured experience: “By speaking, by thinking, we undertake to clarify things, and that forces us to exacerbate them, dislocate them, schematize them. Every concept is in itself an exaggeration.” Lerner’s protagonist, one Adam Gordon, young American poet scooting through obscure and prestigious literary fellowship monies in Madrid—clearly modeled on Lerner himself (one reads with a distinct sense, not that the writer’s own doings are poorly camouflaged, but that the book itself hardly wants to be taken as a novel, wants to inhabit some other, shiftier, or more forgiving, ground, Sebaldian or Bolañoesque, for reasons of its own)—largely considers himself a fraud, what William Matthews used to call a “beautiful fake.” And he is—by turns wholly insufferable and grimly amusing in the completeness of his narcissist throes, damned and saved by the utter thoroughness of his self-consciousness (I recall somebody talking of a John Hawkes novel, Second Skin I think, wondering aloud if it’s at all possible to like a novel whose narrator is, at bottom, unlikeable). Lerner’s Gordon seemingly sees the narcissism / fraudulence as part of a period affliction:
Who wasn’t squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said “I”; who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life? If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak. I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity. I had been a small-time performance artist pretending to be a poet, but now, with an alarming fervor, I wanted to write great poems.
The supposed “ease” of the “ready-made”—literature made of literature—performativity’s routine and wily dance, is that what lies at the core of Lerner’s—and the age’s—disaffection? (So conceptualism’s ostentatiously surrendering of the device: it’s all shill copying, arms akimbo with a look of preternatural boredom at the routine.) John Berger, out the Bento’s Sketchbook (Pantheon, 2011), a thing he thrice repeats, a kind of mystical intoning: “We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” Which is a warning against contemporaneity’s smug refusals and bright accruals both, the peculate insincerity of its knowings and the unplumbed meagreness of its not-knowings. Berger writes to decry the difference, to insist that duration be embedded in the durationless:
The challenge of drawing is to make visible on the paper not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And, being one substance, it harasses the act of drawing. If the lines of a drawing don’t convey this harassment the drawing remains a mere sign. The lines of a sign are uniform and regular: the lines of a drawing are harassed and tense. Somebody making a sign repeats an habitual gesture. Somebody making a drawing is alone in the infinitely extensive.
A Lerner version of which may be (he is talking about the “narrative function” of cigarettes “as bridge or exit strategy,” about how “the little cylinders” provide “a prefabricated motivation and transition,” integrating event and extent): “Happy were the ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, ages of such perfect social integration that no drug was required to link the hero to the whole.” Except that the “extensive” here is no longer the world (its “all possible paths”), but literature: see Georg Lukács’s opening to The Theory of the Novel (1920): “Happy were the ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar . . . The world is wide and yet it is like a home.”