The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I've been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.
Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.
Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series of biographies. The large question these books -- and the ten books cited at the link above -- raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices has never been conclusively established.
-- Wikipedia, The Watergate Scandal.
I was thinking about this long-mysterious motive after reading Thomas Mallon's subtle, well-imagined historical novel Watergate, which speculates (among other things) that the purpose of the illegal spy operation in June 1972 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon's presidency was to find evidence of a Fidel Castro/Cuban connection to the Democratic party. This is one of several common explanations for the spy operation.
Another one, suggested by Bob Haldeman and tentatively endorsed by Jeb Magruder, is that Nixon wanted to find evidence that the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes was secretly funding the Democrats. Others have suggested that Nixon wanted dirt on Ted Kennedy, and a recent book called Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron tries to build a case for a Mafia connection. Still others have guessed that the whole botched operation was a trap by Nixon's opponents, intended to embarrass the President (if this was the case, the trap was an amazing success).
I don't think that any of the above answers are very good, and I have a better one to suggest. The motive for the Watergate break-in is something primal, dreadfully familiar, awkwardly obvious. The answer is there in plain sight -- and it's also certainly there in the memoirs written by the principal Watergate criminals, particularly Blind Ambition by John Dean, An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate by Jeb Magruder, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy and Born Again by Chuck Colson (all of which I've carefully read and reread to help me reach the conclusion I'm about to explain).
Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.
Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.
I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts:
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has deep, twisted roots. Rock musicians have been writing memoirs for decades, often without receiving the publicity that new books by the likes of Keith Richards and Neil Young have recently received. These include many worthy or surprising works published by small presses that are out of print or nearly forgotten today. I've recently launched a new series on Litkicks, "The Great Lost Rock Memoir", which will mine the rich archives of neglected rock memoirs. Today, let's look at the revealing confessions of Mr. Douglas Colvin of Forest Hills, Queens, better known as Dee Dee Ramone.)
Dee Dee Ramone was an unhappy child. He often watched his drunken father beat up his mother, and after she left him to raise Dee Dee alone he quickly adopted patterns of severe substance abuse and found himself wanting to beat his mother up himself. These scenes appear in the early chapters in Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones, which was edited by Veronica Kofman and published by a small outfit called Fire Fly in England in 1997, five years before Dee Dee died.
The life of a writer, musician, artist or celebrity who commits suicide at the height of fame will often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then nearly exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. Then, invariably, posthumously released work that might not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working attains a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.
And then there is the case of David Foster Wallace, a genuinely gifted, chronically troubled writer who came off, on the page, as an over-caffeinated brainiac for whom language, pagination, even punctuation seemed an impediment to the nonstop whirl of thought. His work was alternately funny, depressing, perceptive, freakishly clear and yet also maddeningly obtuse—even though he went to absurdly great lengths to clarify and qualify everything in footnotes, sidebars, bullet points, boxes, all but leaving his phone number for you to call, if you had any further questions.
Haruki Murakami’s novelistic fantasies offer a tonic — not only to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day but to each of us individually. One aspect of this tonic is his view of the role women play in relationships with men.
When asked by an interviewer why women in his novels seem to embody and represent the fears and fantasies of his narrators, Murakami answered, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.”
This remarkable view of the woman’s role closely echoes psychologist C. G. Jung’s theory of the anima. Anima means soul or life (especially inner life). Through such an image a man may seek for aspects of his life that are unconscious, undiscovered by him. The image of the woman may be seen in a vision, a dream, or even be a woman whom he meets.
There are few reading experiences more heavy than this. After hearing about the shocking suicide of 26-year-old techie activist Aaron Swartz, who spent his last two years fending off a Javert-like criminal pursuit for a trivial copyright violation, I read a seven-part "self-improvement" blog series he wrote on his blog five months ago, titled Raw Nerve. Here's the series landing page: