A Splendid Chance to Be a Messiah

Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first towards the centre where the fire was, then turned back and ran towards the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whisky in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Fiction Starvation

In Reality Hunger, David Shields writes of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections:

I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

In response, Steve Mitchelmore writes:

So he (rather than we) has lost something; something has happened to him.

[…]

Entry 69, attributed to Saul Steinberg, is the dynamic beating the wrongheaded heart of [Shields’] manifesto:

There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least superior to the other. One responds to the history of his art so far; the other responds to life itself.

[W]e know which [one] we’re meant to favour. Yet both respond only to distance. To ask what life is in itself is already to open an abyss. It’s not a question that troubles this book because it knows that life is what is “actually occuring in the world” independent of the viewer. To achieve all Shields’ favoured elements then one must discharge agency, which is strictly impossible for the artist; discharging is agency by stealth. So what Shields wants instead is for the artist to efface agency, risk nothing but being found out.

Indeed. But the fiction whose artist effaces agency — Exhibit A: The Corrections — is precisely the sort of fiction that brought Shields to the point of disillusionment that compelled him to write Reality Hunger in the first place. He wants to have it both ways; he wants fiction that “responds to life itself” — much like Ted Genoways, he wants fiction that actively engages with what is now happening in the world — but he doesn’t want fiction to respond so strongly to “life itself” that it reflects upon its own meaning, as fiction, stuck in the mire of “life itself.” In other words, he doesn’t really want fiction at all. He wants a myopic form of literary journalism: one that appropriates the surface aesthetics and the name of fiction, but then shrugs off any concern with the metaphysical problems that fiction raises by its very existence.

More interesting than what Shields wants, however, is why he wants it at all. “Something has happened to my imagination,” he writes, “which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form” — as if the only fiction worth reading is that which facilitates the yielding of the imagination, and as if such imaginative yielding were a prerequisite for the reading of fiction! Better to refuse to allow the imagination to yield and to turn instead to that sort of fiction which responds to the refusal, either by confirming the validity of the refusal or by beguiling or persuading the reader into a reversal. But, then, such fiction rarely has anything substantive to say about “life itself” as Shields understands it; and so he remains trapped in his Catch-22.