From charlesreid1

Quotes from Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (David Foster Wallace)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012, 03:19 AM

Be apprised, though, that the Maine Lobster Festival’s democratization of lobster comes with all the massed inconvenience and aesthetic compromise of real democracy. See, for example, the aforementioned Main Eating Tent, for which there is a constant Disneyland-grade queue, and which turns out to be a square quarter mile of awning-shaded cafeteria lines and rows of long institutional tables at which friend and stranger alike sit cheek by jowl, cracking and chewing and dribbling. It’s hot, and the sagged roof traps the steam and the smells, which latter are strong and only partly food-related. It is also loud, and a good percentage of the total noise is masticatory. The suppers come in styrofoam trays, and the soft drinks are iceless and flat, and the coffee is convenience-store coffee in more styrofoam, and the utensils are plastic (there are none of the special long skinny forks for pushing out the tail meat, though a few savvy diners bring their own). Nor do they give you near enough napkins considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development—not to mention the people who’ve somehow smuggled in their own beer in enormous aisle-blocking coolers, or who all of a sudden produce their own plastic tablecloths and spread them over large portions of tables to try to reserve them (the tables) for their own little groups. And so on.

What the Maine Lobster Festival really is is a midlevel county fair with a culinary hook, and in this respect it’s not unlike Tidewater crab festivals, Midwest corn festivals, Texas chili festivals, etc., and shares with these venues the core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: It’s not for everyone. 6 Nothing against the euphoric senior editor of Food & Wine, but I’d be surprised if she’d ever actually been here in Harbor Park, amid crowds of people slapping canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.

Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobsters, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point.

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?

For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself—or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something—there’s no way.

There are, of course, other ways to kill your lobster on-site and so achieve maximum freshness. Some cooks’ practice is to drive a sharp heavy knife point-first into a spot just above the midpoint between the lobster’s eyestalks (more or less where the Third Eye is in human foreheads). This is alleged either to kill the lobster instantly or to render it insensate, and is said at least to eliminate some of the cowardice involved in throwing a creature into boiling water and then fleeing the room. As far as I can tell from talking to proponents of the knife-in-head method, the idea is that it’s more violent but ultimately more merciful, plus that a willingness to exert personal agency and accept responsibility for stabbing the lobster’s head honors the lobster somehow and entitles one to eat it (there’s often a vague sort of Native American spirituality-of-the-hunt flavor to pro-knife arguments).

The truth is that if you, the festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF begins to take on the aspect of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.

These last few queries, though, while sincere, obviously involve much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality—about what the adjective in a phrase like “The Magazine of Good Living” is really supposed to mean—and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.

Dostoevsky is a literary titan, and in some ways this can be the kiss of death, because it becomes easy to regard him as yet another sepia-tinted Canonical Author, belovedly dead. His works, and the tall hill of criticism they’ve inspired, are all required acquisitions for college libraries … and there the books usually sit, yellowly, smelling the way really old library books smell, waiting for somebody to have to do a term paper. Dahlberg is mostly right, I think. To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people. 10

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The point is that it’s not just the death-by-canonization thing: there is real and alienating stuff that stands in the way of our appreciating Dostoevsky and has to be dealt with—either by learning enough about all the unfamiliar stuff that it stops being so confusing, or else by accepting it (the same way we accept racist/sexist elements in some other nineteenth-century books) and just grimacing and reading on anyway.

It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.

It is no accident that Adult Video News—a slick, expensive periodical whose articles are really more like infomercials—and its yearly Awards both came into being in 1982. The early ’80s, after all, saw the genesis of VCRs and home-video rentals, which have done for the adult industry pretty much what TV did for pro football.

Nor let us forget Vegas’s synecdoche and beating heart. It’s kittycorner from Bally’s: Caesars Palace. The granddaddy. As big as 20 Wal-Marts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass out on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people. An empire of Self. It’s breathtaking. The winter’s light rain makes all the neon bleed. The whole thing is almost too pretty to stand. There could be no site but Las Vegas’s Caesars for modern porn’s Awards show—here, the AAVNAs are one more spectacle. Way more tourists and conventioneers recognize the starlets than you’d expect. Double-takes all over the hotel. Even just standing around or putting coins in a slot machine, the performers become a prime attraction. Las Vegas doesn’t miss a trick.

So yr. corresps. were, for a couple hours, at least logistically speaking, In. For a regular civilian male, hanging out in a hotel suite with porn starlets is a tense and emotionally convolved affair. There is, first, the matter of having seen the various intimate activities and anatomical parts of these starlets in videos heretofore and thus (weirdly) feeling shy about meeting them. But there is also a complex erotic tension. Because porn films’ worlds are so sexualized, with everybody seemingly teetering right on the edge of coitus all the time and it taking only the slightest nudge or excuse—a stalled elevator, an unlocked door, a cocked eyebrow, a firm handshake—to send everyone tumbling into a tangled mass of limbs and orifices, there’s a bizarre unconscious expectation/dread/ hope that this is what might happen in Max Hardcore’s hotel room. Yr. corresps. here find it impossible to overemphasize the fact that this is a delusion. In fact, of course, the unconscious expectation/dread/hope makes no more sense than it would make to be hanging out with doctors at a medical convention and to expect that at the slightest provocation everyone in the room would tumble into a frenzy of MRIs and epidurals. Nevertheless the tension persists, despite the fact that the actresses are obviously tired and disassociated from the day’s CES,

My point is not that his wit is too subtle for US students. In fact, the only halfway effective strategy I’ve come up with for exploring Kafka’s funniness in class involves suggesting to students that much of his humor is actually sort of unsubtle—or rather anti-subtle. The claim is that Kafka’s funniness depends on some kind of radical literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical. I opine to them that some of our most profound collective intuitions seem to be expressible only as figures of speech, that that’s why we call these figures of speech expressions.

What Kafka’s stories have, rather, is a grotesque, gorgeous, and thoroughly modern complexity, an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, “unconscious,” which I personally think is just a fancy word for soul.

There are probably whole Johns Hopkins U. Press books to be written on the lallating function that humor serves in today’s US psyche. A crude way to put the whole thing is that our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development — the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of responsibilities and limitations (taxes, death) and when we yearn inside for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn* — it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is escape, i.e. fantasy, adrenaline, spectacle, romance, etc. Jokes are a kind of art, and because most of us Americans come to art now essentially to escape ourselves — to pretend for a while that we’re not mice and walls are parallel and the cat can be outrun — it’s understandable that most of us are going to view “A Little Fable” as not all that funny, or maybe even see it as a repulsive instance of the exact sort of downer-type death-and-taxes reality for which “real” humor serves as a respite.

No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward—we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

And no US novelist has mapped the inner terrain of the solipsist better than John Updike, whose rise in the 1960s and ’70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV. As were Freud’s, Updike’s big preoccupations have always been with death and sex (not necessarily in that order), and the fact that his books’ mood has gotten more wintry in recent years is understandable—Updike has always written mainly about himself, and since the surprisingly moving Rabbit at Rest he’s been exploring, more and more overtly, the apocalyptic prospect of his own death.

First, though, if I may poke the critical head into the frame for just one moment, I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of these spleen-venting spittle-spattering Updike haters one often encounters among literary readers under forty.

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

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But I think the deep reason so many of my generation dislike Updike and the other GMNs has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.

They always live in either Pennsylvania or New England, are either unhappily married or divorced, are roughly Updike’s age. Always either the narrator or the point-of-view character, they tend all to have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way that Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying … and deeply alone, alone the way only an emotional solipsist can be alone.

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I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the sixties and seventies, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Updike’s evection of the libidinous self appeared refreshing and even heroic. But young adults of the nineties—many of whom are, of course, the children of all the impassioned infidelities and divorces Updike wrote about so beautifully, and who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation—today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.

Turnbull is particularly keen on subatomic physics and something he calls the “Theory of Many Worlds”—a real theory, by the way, which was proposed in the fifties as a solution to certain quantum paradoxes entailed by the Principles of Indeterminacy and Complementarity, and which in truth is wildly complex and technical, but which Turnbull seems to believe is basically the same as the Theory of Past-Life Channeling, thereby explaining the set pieces where Turnbull is somebody else. The whole quantum setup ends up being embarrassing in the special way something pretentious is embarrassing when it’s also wrong.

The clunky bathos of this novel seems to have infected even the line-by-line prose, Updike’s great strength for almost forty years. Toward the End of Time does have flashes of beautiful writing—deer described as “tender-faced ruminants,” leaves as “chewed to lace by Japanese beetles,” a car’s tight turn as a “slur” and its departure as a “dismissive acceleration down the driveway.”

They seem less like John Updike than like somebody doing a mean parody of John Updike.

Maybe the one thing that the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid: he can quote Pascal and Kierkegaard on angst, discourse on the death of Schubert, distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.