Ordinary Unhappiness

I got acquainted with the American author David Foster Wallace while I was in Rome looking for The Savage Detectives by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The Chilean’s book was sold out, so the friendly girl working at the bookstore said I should try this one instead as she passed me Infinite Jest. I bought the book, and two others, and, perhaps three years later, I finished the book (and most of his other stuff). 

That event in Rome took place in 2008, a few months after Wallace’s suicide. I mentioned this story because, for several years, I have thought about writing about the philosophy of DFW, but now I don’t have to. Writer, journalist, and the founding editor of The Point, Jon Baskin, has written an admirable book called Ordinary Unhappiness: The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace. In this book, he illustrates how Wallace’s fiction is an encounter with various ways of doing philosophy. 

Baskin is not the first to explore the universe of Wallace through a philosophical lens. For instance, of noteworthy mention is Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace, published in 2003; however, due to the time of publication, this work didn’t cover all of Wallace’s fiction. Furthermore, Baskin deals solely with Wallace’s fiction, showing not only the philosophical quality of literary critics but also—and more importantly—how fiction at times can be regarded as philosophy. 

Philosophy for Baskin is not just a method “exposing logical fallacies”. “There is not,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, “philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.” (p. 5–6). 

To explain what he means by this crucial concept of “therapeutic”, Baskin relies on the two philosophers Stanley Cavell and Robert Pippin and their reading of Wittgenstein “… therapeutically, criticism—in both Cavell’s and Pippin’s hands—is concerned with what has kept us from seeing what is right on the text’s surface. It seeks to expose not something hidden in the work of art but something we have hidden from ourselves” (p. 35). 

The problem being addressed is not something to be found in the text but in ourselves, in our form of life, our approach, or relationship with the text. Therefore, the philosophical or literary therapy of Wallace is not concerned with answers but “aimed at helping us see the senselessness of our questions” (p. 78). The problems in life should not be treated like the questions at a quiz-show. Instead, by exploring our approach toward life (or a text), we might become aware or conscious about the fragile and temporary position we speak or see from, as if our position were closer to the truths. Another way of illustrating this is by stressing Wallace’s wish to overcome the stereotypical academic debate between solid positions: position A oppose position B and so forth; rather, Wallace brings the reader out into the open, naked or without his or her academic amour, in a kind of constantly emerging pre-position where the point is not to debate who is right; rather to recognize “problems as different, your world if different,” as Cavell is quoted as saying (p. 78). 

If I should have one critique of Baskin’s exemplary study, it would be to unfold the relationship between philosophical therapy and ethics even further. By seeing ethics not as a predefined normative program or as something transcendent or abstract but as an immanent way of living a lifestyle. Other interesting studies about Wittgenstein are James C. Edwards’ Ethics Without Philosophy (1982) and James F. Peterman’s Philosophy as Therapy (1992). For example, by linking thinking to living and vice versa, a philosophical therapy makes us see new possibilities or forms of life. The therapeutic—philosophical or literary—doesn’t, therefore, refer to a process of normalizing, that is to say, by telling or showing us what to think, feel, do, or live; rather, it aims at making everything more real, not by explaining but unfolding. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, I might say that philosophical work is transformative in the sense that the world of the person who has read Infinite Jest is different from that of one who has not. Hereby, I don’t make a moral judgement but a literary or philosophical one.

One of the problems of our time, according to Wallace, is related to how we think, i.e., how we relate to the world. The argument goes like this: the same kind of thinking that creates a problem can’t overcome it—the problem is part of our way of seeing, thinking. 

As Baskin writes, “For Wallace, the separation of philosophy from literature—and the crude dichotomies often correlated with the separation: mind/body, theoretical/practical, intellectual/emotional—are both a cause and a symptom of a ‘dis-ease,’ as he calls it in Infinite Jest, at the heart of modern and postmodern self-consciousness. Bringing philosophy and literature together becomes the precondition for even being able to see—much less to address or “treat”—the many symptoms of this dis-ease in our everyday lives and in ourselves.” (p. 4).

There is a quote from Infinite Jest that, in my opinion, might illustrate the goal of Wallace’s work and clarify this even further. “But what of the freedom-to? Not just freedom-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?” 

Freedom does not refer to an irresponsible adolescent or immature “I can-do-want-I want- attitude; rather it is to be bound by the right strings—those that make sense. Baskin writes that Wallace want us—the readers—“to value verbal honesty over empty cleverness” (p. 72); Wallace wants “to help us see the connection between psychological suffering and our habits of thought,” (p. 38). What Wallace is asking for; however, is not for someone to tell us what to choose or think, rather how to choose and how to think. In his commencement speech, Wallace talks about paying attention to live consciously in order to take more beneficial decisions in life. Another way of saying this is the way in which the “love-filled” parent or guide could help the child see the world more clearly or, as Wittgenstein says, in “clarity”, to bring peace to mind. 

Henceforth, the disease of today—“our philosophical problem (p.131)—is related to adolescence, a philosophical immatureness as when we hide between clever identities or ideals, instead of trying to think ourselves. “That maturity requires wisdom,” writes Baskin, a wisdom we can see being outlined in Wallace’s last unfinished work The Pale King. In this last novel, Wallace reactivates some of that ideas that formed his Infinite Jest; for example, the philosophy of freedom, the AA-session, and how addiction infects our will—“addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thought,” writes Wallace in Infinite Jest

A part of maturing or becoming wise has to do with “being an uncomplaining adult, who suffers the indignities of life without making too much of them.” (p.129). Not as a kind of resentment or passive nihilism, rather as an acceptance or, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defines ethics, as “not being unworthy to what happens to us”. It is also this understanding that makes the titles of Baskin’s book meaningful as well as beautiful. The goal is never to solve all the problems in life—how could we even live our life without encountering problems—but rather, to quote Freud through Baskin, “if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness” (p. 19).

Baskin succeeds in making sense of why Wallace’s task mattered so urgently for him and why it might matter to us. Like all good art, it’s about life and death, about what it means to be a human being, about teaching us how to think. 

No user’s guide can help those who still haven’t read Infinite Jest and The Pale King. No one becomes a chef in the kitchen by reading cookbooks; they become one only by crying while cutting the onions and sweating while frying the mushroom. Baskin, I believe, would agree to this when it comes to understanding Wallace’s fiction; and even if by thinking with, through, or against him, there can be no substitute for reading his work in all its difficulty, and, at times, boredom. 

Wallace’s work is a diagnose and not a cure for our world; he helps us see that stress, burnout, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc., shouldn’t be regarded as individual diagnoses. Rather, it a diagnosis of a social structure or underlying governmental neoliberal ideology that is sick; “to live today is simply to be subject to such breakdowns.” Similarly, if we are just “doing our jobs” as in the great bureaucratical excuse (p.58), then perhaps our society is evil (Arendt). 

Baskin’s book is, of course, relevant and insightful to all readers of Wallace, both literary critics and laypeople, but the book is also relevant for students of philosophy with an interest in philosophical or literary therapy as something other than psychological therapy. 

I highly recommend this book.

First published in Metapsychology, Vol. 24, No. 27

Catching life

Recently, I bought a boxset with the Television series Twin Peaks and David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish

“Ideas are like fish”, Lynch writes. “If you want a little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” It is well-known that Lynch uses transcendental meditation to go deeper. Everything there is, comes from the deepest level, he says, which modern physics call the Unified Field.  “The more your consciousness—your awareness—is expanded, the deeper you go towards this source, and the bigger the fish you can catch.”

Reading this little book while watching Twin Peaks was illuminating. For example, the series opens with the log women speaking and telling us what it’s all about, she ends up saying: “Laura is the one.” 

She, Laura Palmer, is the Unified Field. Everything that happens in Twin Peaks, is related to her: Laura Palmer. 

The whole series is drawing a map of a complex totality as a way of gradually going deeper and deeper. For example, in later episodes, the log women speaks about dreams and ideas. The FBI special agent Dale Coper often gets his ideas, or clear up a misunderstanding, in his dreams, perhaps as an illustration of the “hidden” potential that lies deep within – something unconscious, something still unknown, waiting to actualized.

I recall seeing the series when I lived in small town (some years younger than the young bunch of main characters, some of which I found both cool and very attractive back then). Twin Peaks caught my attention like no other series had before (and not like anyone else had until I saw the first season of True Detective). 

Lynch, reminds me of the Danish poet and film instructor Jørgen Leth, who I once wrote a book about. (I encountered Leth’s poems and films more or less at the same time, I saw Twin Peaks). Leth is also semi-inspired by a humble philosophy where you’re open for whatever happens; you take it, whatever it is, and use it as good as you can. In continuation of Leth (and later with the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño), I’ve tried to develop a poetic and attentive philosophy, where the senses are all active

Both Lynch and Leth mention how certain coincidences that happened at their filmset later were integrated into their films, making them better. They both believe that time should be allowed to unfold as it unfolds. Time is not a passive medium within which acts are placed; rather, time is immanent “within” action, when opening for or making another possible future actual. They both believe that everything is connected.

I emphasize that everything is connected or interconnectivity, recalling the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Næss who once said something like: if I destroy another life, I also destroy myself to some degree. Why? Because relations compose who I am, who we are. Relating this idea to a small community like Twin Peaks, then the life of each one of the characters is not sustainable without the others, and vice versa. The death of Laura Palmer is, therefore, not only a tragedy for her and her closest relations; rather, it’s an attack on the social bonds that holds this community together. 

Perhaps Twin Peaks can be seen as how fragile or vulnerable these social bonds are when we focus on money, power, greed and hate, and how these bonds can be strengthen through friendships, honesty, trust … stressing something like an equal value of all lives. For example, special agent Dale Coper listens to all citizens with equal care and interest, even those we (the viewers) might look at with skepticisms. He is a fairly good person.

Seeing Twin Peaks and reading this little simple book brought me back to my own youth—perhaps not as something deeper (not sure I agree with Lynch’s vertical metaphor)—but as an expanding of my consciousness, reconnecting with these basic social bonds of love, care and friendships. Catching moments of life.

In a way, re-watching Twin Peaks made me recall how ethics is generous. It gives or shares without asking for anything because it passes on what cannot be owned: love, friendship or social bonds.  

Isn’t philosophy’s first virtue to be humble as in curious, open, available?  

Roberto Bolaño og kunsten

Det er ikke muligt at penetrere livets eller kunstens inderste hemmelighed. Men den kan erfares gennem de produkter, som et livs kreative handlinger efterlader. Sådan skal man læse den chilenske forfatter Roberto Bolaño, for sådanne efterladenskaber udgør eksistensens fundament. Og med et sådant kan der måske gives et svar på, hvordan lever man i en verden fuld af vold, pengegriskhed og had?

Læs essayet “Hver eneste forbandet ting er vigtig” i anledning af, at Bolaño døde på en solrig dag, som i dag, tilbage i 2003.


“Fuck it all, of course I overestimate myself, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be where I am.” – Roberto Bolaño

Chris Andrew har oversat en stor del af Roberto Bolaños bøger fra spansk til engelsk. Han har gjort det godt. Sammen med Natasha Wimmer, som bl.a. har oversat de to store værker, 2666 og The Savage Detectives, har han beriget mange mennesker, som ikke kan læse spansk. Oversættere gør en stort arbejde i at sprede litteraturen, da de færreste af os kan læse mere end to-tre sprog. Tak for det.

Der var engang, hvor litterater læste, mens de ledte med lys og lygte efter, hvad meningen med det skrevne måtte være. Det bildte sig ind, at en tekst partout måtte have en dybere mening. Sådan er der heldigvis færre og færre, der læser bøger. I stedet for spørger de, hvad en tekst åbner for, hvad den muliggør, hvilke tanker og følelser og erkendelser, som den bringer frem. Andrew er en affirmativ læser af Roberto Bolaño. Jeg vil påstå, at det er svært at være andet, da det ligger i Bolaños måde at skrive på: skriften er aldrig konkluderende, men åben og generøs.

Andrews bog, Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, er et fornemt eksempel på en læsning af et forfatterskab, der udvider dette forfatterskabs univers, angiveligt, fordi forfatterskabet netop selv er ekspansivt.

Kardinaldyderne hos Bolaño er mod og gavmildhed. Han er ikke fanatisk tilhænger af kunst for kunstens egen skyld. Det betyder ikke, at kunsten skal tjene nogen som helst ideologi. Kunst har som bekendt ingen herre. Snarere at når ens mor ligger for døden, eller ens gode ven har problemer, så bliver kunsten sekundær. Forfatteren rejser sig fra skrivepulten.

Et sted citerer Andrews en anonym læser, der siger: “Hos Bolaño er litteraturen hjælpeløs, uværdig, og ikke en speciel rar tvangshandling, ligesom rygning.” Af samme grund bryder Bolaño sig heller ikke om den type forfattere, der ser dette arbejde, som et karrierevalg. Noget som pludselig bliver en fiks ide efter at vedkommende har konsulteret Politikens “Hvad kan jeg blive”. Hos forfatteren er logikken omvendt: Han bliver det, som han kan bære. Der er med andre ord intet prætentiøst i at skrive. “Writing was easy, because all he needed was a notebook and a pencil.”

Det afgørende spørgsmål er mere om man er åben, dvs. om man kan give plads til det, som lægger an på en, også selvom konsekvenserne kan være barske. Det er den type mod, som Bolaño holder af. Når skriverierne bliver til kunst, hænger det sammen med, hvordan forfatteren vælger at komponere stoffet, som han eller hun har modtaget. At skrive er hårdt arbejde, så hårdt at ingen vælger det frivilligt.

Andrews opridser flere grunde til at Bolaño er blevet så populær (selv i Danmark har Gyldendal fået øjnene relativt hurtigt op). Her er nogle af dem: Bolaño skriver exceptionelt godt, at han kan oversættes og, at der er mange myterne forbundet med hans person, fx hvorvidt han var narkoman og fængslet i Chile under Pinochet-styret. Sandheden er nok den, at Kim Leine tager væsentlig flere stoffer i den fremragende Kalak, end Bolaño nogensinde har gjort.

Jeg skal ikke gøre mig til dommer, da jeg blot er en læser, men ja, gu fanden skriver han da godt. Han skriver anderledes, på en rå og fortættet måde. Han er også lige læselig, hvad enten han læses på engelsk, spansk eller dansk.

Andrew berører Bolaños fiktive systematik. Han viser sirligt, måske lidt pedantisk, hvordan Bolaño genbruger personer fra en bog i en anden. Han bygger videre på dem. Udvider dem. Andrew viser ligeledes, at i en tid, hvor det er blevet populært ikke at have et plot, der rummer Bolaños fortællinger altid to historier. Den synlige og den usynlige. Der kommer ikke nogen åbenbaring, men hans historier er fuld af suspense og plot, selvom disse typisk er lettere skjulte. Bolaño sidder ikke og filer og pudser på et erindringsglimt, hvorved denne til sidst bliver så idealiseret og køn, at den mangler liv. Faktisk kan jeg huske, at jeg for et års tid siden så en større udstilling om ham på CCCB i Barcelona. Her kunne man se, hvordan teksterne i hans notesbøger stort set ikke blev udsat for nogen redigering. Ren kraft. I dag er der flere forlagsredaktører, der fungerer som professionelle soldater, idet de prøver at få forfatteren (især de unge) til at udleve redaktørens idealer.

Ganske interessant, hives filosoffens Galen Strawsons ideer om det diakrone og episodiske selv frem. Strawson bryder med den dominerende ide om at et fyldestgørende narrativ, dvs. et narrativ der rummer ens fortidige og fremtidige selv, er nødvendigt for et sprudlende liv. Det passer ikke, siger han. Hos Bolaño finder man begge typer, men flest af de episodiske. Faktisk er det netop disse drivere, vandrere, vagabonder og eksistenser uden et egentligt mål, som tænder mig voldsomt. Angiveligt, fordi jeg kan forbinde mig med disse outsidere. Derudover er det at skabe et narrativ ofte alt for let, sågar en smule søgt. Det minder lidt om David Beckham, når han fortæller, at alle hans tatoveringer har en betydning, idet de fortæller en lille historie. Nuvel, og hvis ikke, så kan enhver jo snildt opfinde en historie alt efter om det er ens barn, der spørger; eller den enlige kvinde i baren.

Bolaño kan lide det tragiske og det romantiske, hvilket jeg også nærer stor veneration for. “To be brave, knowing beforehand that you’ll be defeated, and go out and fight: that’s literature.” Det er både pessimistisk og optimistisk, idet du kæmper med hvad du har, selvom det sikkert ikke er nok. På den måde rummer Bolaño også noget atletisk. Som en Alberto Contador opfinder han nye etaper, der kan vende et slag; eller han dør med støvlerne på. Jeg kan godt lide denne form for heroisme. Jeg er klar over, at den er romantisk, men ikke desto mindre heroisk. Og det er vel og mærke muligt, er påstanden, at selv om man måske ikke lykkedes, kan man sagtens leve meningsfuldt, måske fordi vedkommende netop prøvede at vælte Hitler, prøvede at skrive en god bog osv. Hvad vil det i grunden sige at lykkes?

Bogens sidste kapitel, A Sense of What Matters, trækker fint det hele sammen. Der bindes – helt i Bolaños ånd – ingen knude, men en af den slags sløjfer, man konstant skal bukke sig ned og gentage. Bolao er modig, gavmild og åben for at skifte gear, hvis underlaget tilsiger en et gearskifte.

Bolaño slog sent igennem. Han var ikke en mand, der var afhængig af netværk og litterære tilhørsforhold, hvilket ellers er almindeligt. Han skrev, fordi det at skrive var en etisk fordring for ham.

To ting er værd at nævne til sidst, såfremt dette indlæg skal tjene som en slags anmeldelse. For det første, jeg kan huske mit første møde med Bolaño. Det skete på den store togstation midt i Rom. Her fandt jeg hans netop oversatte bog, The Savage Detectives. I flyveren havde jeg – helt tilfældigt – læst en omtale af denne bog i The New York Times. Efter at have læst denne bog, læste jeg flere af hans kortere historier, som en forberedelse til den monstrøse 2666. Det jeg siger, er blot: Soy un apasionado de Bolaño. For det andet, bogen ikke er en indgang eller introduktion til Bolaño. Den kræver, at man er rimeligt belæst i hans forfatterskab – især 2666, De vilde detektiver, Fjern stjerne, Om natten i Chile og Amulet henvises der lystigt til. Og netop her er danske læsere velsignet, idet de fleste af disse bøger netop findes på dansk.

Hvorfor læse Andrew? Hmmm. Sorry mate. Hans bog er rigtig god. Den fortjener et langt liv. Ikke desto mindre: Læs Bolaño. Kunst er det, som gør livet mere interessant end kunst. Der er liv i Bolaños bøger.