Thursday, March 12, 2015

Eric Fershtman: the last thing this essay needs is a name

The equivocation, the verbosity, the footnotes, the salmagundi of, like, obscure academic jargon and colloquialisms—the e.g.’s and i.e.’s and shucks, folks, and w/r/t’s and etc.’s, etc.—all speak to a kind of theft, or: a repurposing/appropriation, if compelled toward Not Being Hard On Oneself.

This confession’s long in the making and yet, your humble writer is afraid, a little bit, and inclined toward prolonging, for at least a little while, the Truth, which will no doubt prove to be freeing, as it is on occasion rumored to do.


One hesitates to plunge into the milky waters of myth, but it seems necessary when considering the topic is language, which is very old indeed.

And so: Thoth.

Ever heard of this guy?

Seems obscure now and perhaps forgotten, but Thoth was once one of the most powerful gods in existence. The dude, according to Wikipedia (itself according to a book called The Gods of the Egyptians, by E.A. Wallis Budge, one of the world’s “foremost Egyptologists”), “served as a mediating power, especially between good and evil, making sure neither had a decisive victory over the other. He also served as scribe of the gods, credited with the invention of writing and alphabets.”

And so: Keeper of the Great Dichotomy, Inhabitant of the Border Space, and Originator of Writing. Thoth, in contemporary parlance, was In. His “power was unlimited in the Underworld,” or, i.e., that place souls go after death. And too: he’s one of two gods in the Egyptian pantheon trusted enough to accompany the sun-god Ra (Zeus-equivalent, although more so, if this makes sense) on his nightly voyage across the sky.

The other? Thoth’s wife, Maat. Who was, if possible, even more powerful than Thoth: Wikipedia via Budge claims her as “cosmic harmony” itself, more concept than goddess, who “bound all things together in an indestructible unity: the universe, the natural world, the state, and the individual.”

Maat was the personification of what today we’d term Truth.

And Truth’s married to Language. And together, they’re responsible for the weighing of souls, after Death. What we’re dealing with’s an anthropomorphism and triangulation of the Big Organizing Concepts of the Western world.

Your humble writer is here stumped on how to continue. It seems significant, but in a way which defies explication beyond the obvious (not to mention that this all, philosophically/anthropologically speaking, is above yr. wr.’s pay grade). Myths function, after all, as placeholders, stand-in for actual knowledge, and often strike us modern folks as primitive, in contrast to Science, that enlightening and mostly putative—in that it often sets itself up as negative, as out to disprove and discredit—force.

And yet: we’ve ingested such myths. To a degree, one sort of suspects, that’s greater than we’d like to admit. Or are, more likely, even aware of.

In exuding and discarding the effluvia of such myths, something’s been left behind. It’s that which is essential. Which is basic. Which is very, very old, and maybe, could possibly be, true.


But really it’s newness which concerns us, due to, Art Is Theft, and There’s Nothing New Under The Sun, and It’s All Been Done Before.

These phrases are clichés, defined in the OED as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”

Phrase, in case you were curious, refers to “a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit[1], typically forming a component of a clause.”

Lack, likewise, means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”

And original, which is perhaps the trickiest term in the original definition, can mean (1) “present or existing from the beginning; first or earliest” (significant, in that this is the beginning/first/earliest definition of the word), or (2) “created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation” or (3) “not dependent on other people’s ideas; inventive and unusual.”

And so one sees cliché complicated, considerably, by this proliferation of words, themselves referencing and referenced by other words, a kind of intricate scaffolding built around—

And also, being polysemous, or: not at all precise, in definition.

Lots of philosophers (“a person engaged or learned in philosophy, especially as an academic discipline”) have been concerned with this issue—with defining it, to be precise. Guys like Frederick Nietzsche, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida.

The most basic problem is the act of definition itself, or the impulse towards, which seems to be very human, very us, or, i.e., one of the few things one might be somewhat comfortable terming universal. We can’t resist making meaning, and even to discover this, or figure it out, is to make some kind of meaning. And so the issue seems to be circular, and muddy, and always leaves us scratching our heads.

In other words: Shit’s[2] fucked[3] up, folks.

It’s not your humble writer’s intention here to delve into such yawn-inducing theoretical stuff. To do that would take more space than we’ve got for our discussion; not to mention, yr. wr.’s not nearly smart or ambitious enough to do more than graze the hem of the whole thing, big and complicated and interwoven as it is. But it Looms, and so it’s got to be mentioned and touched on in at least an ancillary way.

One might consider, over the course of our discussion, the questions: what (the hell) is The Big Looming Thing? And why’s this guy so obsessed with it? Does he perhaps need to just chill the fuck out and get laid?


What your humble writer would actually like to do is hone in on a specific aspect of craft, as it relates to the above-mentioned Big Looming Thing: How language confronts that which (we think) can’t be gotten at in language. I.e., the saying-of-the-unsayable. There is, one thinks, a lot at stake for us in this question and yet, the issue’s tangled up in The Big Looming Thing, and too, in issues of ethics and aesthetics.

David Foster Wallace[4] was, to seem degree, concerned with this stuff in much of his work. In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” he dedicates the last sentence to it:

These last couple queries, though, while sincere, obviously involve much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality, and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here.

His silence here is suggestive: those questions aren’t ever actually resolved, but they’re asked (or actually: alluded to) which seems to do the trick of bringing that Big Looming Thing we don’t or can’t look at directly into peripheral view. And we’ll notice the use of metaphor as a stand-in for the thing Wallace can’t quite say: those “deep and treacherous waters.”[5]

Your humble writer would like to try and posit here that what we do when compelled to say the unsayable thing is this: we use other people’s words. We’ll use figurative language, and clichés, and aphorisms, and bits of repeated philosophy, and archetypes.

And so Re: Thoth, who’s equated, we’ll remember, with Language and Myth. The Great Substitute. Here’s our link. It’s Thoth who speaks/writes the will of Ra. Who stands in. Whose words Ra desperately needs to keep the whole thing functioning. Likewise Maat, whose existence is unknown, without Thoth. Thus, the convenient marriage.

No Truth without Language. And yet Language substitutes for Truth. This little paradox is what we’ve in this discussion been calling The Big Looming Thing, and what another dude, Jacques Derrida (previously mentioned), calls “the metaphysics of presence."

The stakes: Everything. Because we’ve built/organized our lives/society around the existence of a Truth separate of Language. Science, in fact, organizes itself around this basic premise.


Yikes! Imagine the hangdog look on your humble writer’s face on realizing he’s so consistently and awkwardly returning to a question outside the scope of our discussion.

But so, to refocus w/r/t saying-the-unsayable and using-other-people’s-words: In a very real sense of the word, we fictionalize: “It is increasingly likely,” wrote Ander Monson, in Vanishing Point, “that what we remember—all of it—is fiction, variously true or edited. It is constantly being reedited to fit our version of events with what we think of ourselves, the narratives we use to define our lives and give context to action, and we might as well admit it.” It’s related to the larger phenomenon of empathy[6], in which we see ourselves in others. The big implication behind the existence of which being that the whole Self/Other distinction by which we define ourselves is a lot muddier when looked at closely, as most things are. But that discussion would take us into deep and treacherous waters.

Your humble writer is sure this argument’s been made before, which is, sort of, its case in point. Q.E.D., WWWWW, etc.


Let’s try starting with two assumptions:
1. the borders between fiction and nonfiction are porous, perhaps even nonexistent, and
2. the defining impulse, or the fact that we just can’t seem to resist making meaning is, at its essence, a narrativizing impulse.
In other words, if we look closely at the ways we define both fiction and nonfiction, we’ll discover that they’re both organized around the same principle: that of interpretation of experience. E.L Doctorow, quoted in a New York Times essay by Michiko Kakutani, quoted in Reality Hunger, by David Shields, and now quoted here, by your humble writer, hits[7] on this: “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction,” he says, “there’s only narrative.”

Seems a good time here to set down a definition, so we’re aware of the boundaries within which we’re working: the OED claims narrative is “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story,” and goes on to give three senses or shades of this more general definition: (1) “the narrated part or parts of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue,” or (2) “the practice or art of telling stories,” or (3) “a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.” has this: “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.”

And too, lists both fiction and history as synonyms.

It’s slippery, to be blunt. But it seems to be trying to mean something that coheres, that’s whole (re: Maat—or more precisely, Thoth-speaking-Maat, “cosmic harmony,” etc.) and which, in being whole, creates meaning.

It’s important to note narrative as a possible organizing principle, because it offers us a shot, however long the odds, at unifying those above-mentioned genres, which division is sort of unnatural, in light of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling ourselves for thousands of years. I.e., myths, which, we know, combine both fiction and nonfiction, inside their structures.

(Just now realizing our project here’s much bigger than initially anticipated, and so feeling all sorts of intimidated and not totally up to the task.)

The relevant questions to ask, regarding the two assumptions we began with, are these: why separate the two (meaning, fiction and non-)? And why equate nonfiction, defined not as itself, but as the negative of fiction, with Truth?[8]


Truth is defined, in our culture, against what it isn’t. This might be because we have such trouble saying what it actually is.[9]


The evidence used to support the above assumptions are quotes from other writers, culled from eight books and four essays, credited only in the endnotes, because the argument is made as collage, to amplify and perhaps exaggerate the main claim, which is, again, that we appropriate, when confronted with failures of language. As Monson wrote: “So I have reconstructed this story out of other stories, fitting them together so they feel (hopefully) satisfying.”


I am beginning to learn what it means: unspeakable.

I remember myself then as always missing words, unable to speak, caught in the space of my still mostly unspeakable feelings.

The unreliability, the misrememberings, the act of telling in starts and stops, the fuckups, the pockmarked surface of the I: that’s where all the good stuff is, the fair and foul, that which is rent, that which is whole, that which engages the whole reader.

What happens when we can no longer freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience?

Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn’t.

The act of writing is inevitably viewed as an act of courage (brave is all over the place). Life’s difficult, maybe even a drag; language is (slim) solace. No one else gets what you’re doing; I alone get it. You and me, babe. Intimacy. Urgency. We alone get life. Let me explain your book—the text—to yourself. Let me tell you what your book is about. Life is shit. We are shit. This, alone, will save us—this communication.

An aside: I am primarily a fiction writer. It’s been an incredible struggle to make it to this point in the essay.

It’s a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.

To be forced to think about things overtly, explicitly, when I’d been used to working my issues out by constructing imaginary characters and subjecting them to all sorts of problems and difficulties, has been really hard, to say the least, and this lack of a payoff at the end of it, of a happy ending, has compelled me to rethink the way in which I assemble my fictions: why am I constantly denying my characters their due glimmers of happiness? Why do their hopes go unfulfilled, when I have the power to fulfill them? The short answer is because it’s realistic. The long answer is…It’s long. It’s complicated. It has to do with issues of existence, and identity—two words I hope never to write again, pending the completion of this essay. It has to do with mortality, essentially. The Big, Dark Thing lurking in the innermost depths of all other things. Happiness wards away The Big, Dark Thing using an ingenious defense mechanism: distraction. Success and achievements. Notice the language: succeed, achieve—these are words set in contrast to another, more ominous word: fail. Failure is irrevocably tied to mortality in the English language: You can beat that cancer, you can fight the good fight, you can die trying, your heart, lungs, liver, etc. can fail, you can lose a loved one, and so on. To confront failure is to be reminded of an impending Failure.

Still, I kept trying, unsure whether the labor would ever end or just beget another failure.

Not only is life mostly failure, but in one’s failure or pettiness or wrongness exists the living drama of the self.

In the work of my favorite writers, the armature of overt drama is dispensed with, and we’re left with a deeper drama, the real drama: an active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive.

(Ambitious) memoir isn’t fundamentally a chronicle of experience; rather, memoir is the story of consciousness contending with experience.

In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it. The real question is: this massive autobiographical writing enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction—does it yield only fictions? Or rather, among the fictions of the self, the versions of the self, that it yields, are there any that are truer than others? How do I know when I have the truth about myself?

When a self can (through language, memory, research, and invention) project itself everywhere, and can empathize with anyone or anything, what exactly is a self?

Self-study of any seriousness aspires to myth. Thus do we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves.

As an aside: I do all of this too. I can’t see a way to stop it, either, thinking about the I, examining myself (I must face the fact that I do, in the end, find myself interesting, which is good, I suppose) in text and thought.

We are always only in our own company.

We are everywhere on the surface of the self-space, and not permitted to sink to the metaphoric center, to rise into the heaven of release from identity.

In the individual essays, and in the book as a whole, the pattern recurs over and over: a self declares itself; a text emerges as countertext to the self; the text becomes heroic or the generator of the text becomes a heroic figure, a parental figure, an authority figure of some kind; gaps emerge; the text can’t get talked about directly; what gets talked about is the culture surrounding the narrator, the culture surrounding the text; we keep circling self, circling text, keep searching, can’t quite access self, can’t quite access text, but we can access the space between the text and the self. That space is magical. That space is oddly redemptive.

This is the location in between, not solid land, not high seas.

And this is only one example where some cliché peels away to reveal a kernel of real feeling.

The only way I’ve found I can live, literarily, is by carving out my own space between the interstices of fiction and non-.

The in-between is where I finally want to live, where the practical and the projected bend like the Mississippi on a windy blue day.

This, then, is a space of my own making. This is the story I am learning to live.

Around it is yet more beautiful emptiness.

Truth, they know, rests in silence.

For one, I’d like to find the courage not to tell my story. Since we would all—apparently—prefer to tell our stories, the smarter thing, the harder thing for lots of us, is silence.

I could not have imagined containing, as the farm woman slumped next to me did, the sheer narrative bulk to say, “I could tell you stories,” and then drifting off with the secret heaviness of experience into the silence where stories live their real lives, crumbling into the loss we call remembrance.

Too much death, you know? His brother: (silent this whole time) To him you want to say, what? Listen, uh…the words just…

The first time I was alone in the wilderness, I walked through a field that throbbed with song and wondered whether the crickets played their wings or their legs. My footfalls, instead of causing the usual thud, caused spreading pools of solemn silence. Sound stopped wherever I walked. And I walked and walked to hush the world, leaving silence like spoor.

Someday a sentence will come to me, a magic sentence that will undo all that is wrong and make everything right. But until that sentence comes, I say nothing.


So at the very least we can diagnose a kind of flow to this thing: we begin with the unspeakable, and more important, the urge to speak it, and move from there to an attempt to speak it which ends in failure, to a deeper consideration of the self, and particularly, the self as space (which can contain, paradoxically, other selves), and from there to the space “in between” or i.e., the space not contained by categories or meaning, to another silence, this time embraced and to some degree, known.

Of the six quotes at the end of the collage that deal with silence, all of them come at or toward the end of their respective books/essays, save for one (Patricia Hampl’s “I could not have imagined containing…”) which comes at the beginning of her collection of essays, in a preface-like essay that really sort of captures the gist of the other essays[10].

Interesting to note, as well, that this pattern loosely (and unintentionally, believe it or not) follows a traditional story arc: there’s the conflict (in the urge to speak the unspeakable), the rising action/hurdles-to-overcome (the failure to speak it), the climax/epiphanic moment (the discovery of the space-in-between), and the denouement (the embrace of silence). This arc, of course, has been appropriated in various shapes and forms for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

As of course is the technique of collage, taken from visual arts.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By, state the case unequivocally: “Our concepts,” they write, “structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people…since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.”


This has been an odd and circular little exercise in failure. Your humble writer’s more than a little bewildered by his own argument, which, such bewilderment’s embarrassing, and also time-consuming to work through, and exhausting, because he’s sort of sure he’s onto something, but each time he assays to clarify just what that something is, he ends up confusing himself and spinning off into weird tangents (and perhaps irritating you).

Well but so, A Confession: This was not about a book, or a collection of books. Nor was it about nonfiction or fiction. It was about language itself, the ways we use it, and’s therefore a much more basic problem, and harder to conceptualize, because it’s buried so deeply beneath other problems.

And another: A couple of those quotes in the collage were taken from an essay your humble writer wrote when he was twenty-four, and working through a massive, disorienting grief occasioned by the death of his best friend.

And, finally: I don’t know how one says the unsayable.

I’ll drop the “humble writer” bullshit. I’d just like to talk directly to you now, if that’s okay.

But so: I don’t know how one says the unsayable. Mostly because I don’t think the unsayable gets said. It’s kind of tautological, sure, but I’m thinking we lie to ourselves and others in asserting that something is unspeakable. That term probably actually refers to traumatic incidents or taboo subjects, which are, sure, really difficult, oftentimes, to discuss, but also necessary.

And so the term unsayable is really more of a rhetorical device, meant to ratchet the intensity of the discussion, to command the reader’s attention.

And in so doing, Speak the Truth—whatever that is[11].

And set us free.


[1] Defined as (1) “an individual thing or person regarded as single and complete but which can also form an individual component* of a larger or more complex whole**” or (2) “a quantity chosen as a standard in terms of which other quantities may be expressed” or (3) “the number one.”

*“A part or element of a larger whole**, especially a part of a machine or vehicle.”

**(1) “a thing that is complete in itself,” or (2) “all*** of something.”

***(1) “used to refer to the whole** quantity or extent of a particular group or thing,” or (2) “the whole** of one’s possessions, energy, or interest.”

[2] (1) “feces” or (2) “a contemptible or worthless person,” or (3) something worthless; garbage; nonsense,” (4) “personal belongings; stuff,” or (5) any psychoactive drug, especially marijuana.” Worth noting that none of these usages seem to apply to the way the word’s used above. Which implies a, like, disjunction between signifier and signified, which, this disjunction, itself implies a separation/division. Which and so no such separation/division exists that’s not got a border of some sort, and it’s here where good old Thoth reigns.

[3] (1) “have sexual intercourse with (someone),” or (2) “ruin or damage (something),” or (3) “an act of sexual intercourse,” or (4) “used alone or as a noun or a verb in various phrases to express anger, annoyance, contempt, impatience, or surprise, or simply for emphasis.”

[4] Defined, variously, as (1) “an award-winning American novelist, short story writer, essayist, professor of English at Illinois State University, and professor of creative writing at Pomona College,” and (2) “A versatile writer of seemingly bottomless energy…a maximalist, exhibiting in his work a huge, even manic curiosity,” and (3) “struggled with depression for more than twenty years,” and (4) “dead.”

[5] It’s worth noting another quote, in which he tries to confront the Thing directly (this in an interview with Larry McCaffery, published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993—that is, about twelve years before “Consider the Lobster”: “I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” This sense of entrapment and loneliness and death that Wallace speaks of here—what is it? The language here and elsewhere in his work suggests he’s struggling with a problem which he can’t even properly conceive, which maybe’s because language is not up to the task.

[6] The OED’s definition of this word—“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”—is all sorts of problematic in an epistemological way, thanks to the trickiness of understand as a concept. But again, we won’t go there, because it’s tethered directly to The Big Looming Thing.

[7] This sort of rhetoric, the back-your-claims-with-quotes variety, is more than a little clunky and dubious, because it’s often tautological: what you’re doing, basically, is decontextualizing these little snippets of text, and plugging them into a new text that has them functioning according to its rules, and those quotes that you can’t make work, don’t get included. This by the way’s the essential dilemma of meaning-making: what you select from the onslaught of experience determines how you view it, which in turn’s got major onto-phenomeno-epistomological repercussions.

[8] In July 2013, your humble writer spent some time at a writers’ conference in the Adirondacks. On the conference’s last day, a conversation was had—in front of us young writers—between Jim Miller, an essayist and Foucault scholar, and Darin Strauss, a novelist whose memoir, Half a Life, was a recent bestseller. Miller, a big aggressive dude, took the lead, immediately lasering in on this question of Truth in nonfiction, stating his view unequivocally: it was the nonfictionist’s job, he claimed, to tell the Truth—the Whole, Nothing But, etc. Strauss looked uncomfortable. Softly, he claimed to disagree, with the caveat that he hadn’t lied in his memoir.

[9] So earlier, we touched on a Self/Other distinction, which let’s not burden ourselves here with an extensive explanation of, other than to say: all dichotomies feature mutually exclusive and yet mutually dependent players, which, if you were to eliminate one of those players, the other would cease to make any kind of sense (e.g., what’s Night, really, without Day? Man without Woman? Coke without Pepsi?) Truth’s more difficult, because we’ve—with certain exceptions*—got a know-it-when-we-see-it attitude regarding it, which keeps it, essentially, societal/situational (or, the opposite of universal).

*Fundamentalists of all stripe, being the most notable.

[10] Just a smidge of critical theory here to clarify: Derrida, in his essay “Outwork,” beautifully—if a little opaquely, thus sort of contradicting the clarifying intent—captures the function of prefaces: “From the viewpoint of the fore-word, which recreates an intention-to-say after the fact, the text exists as something written—a past—which, under the false appearance of a present, a hidden omnipotent author (in full mastery of his product) is presenting to the reader as his future.” I.e., a preface is written after the text, and yet presents itself before it.

[11] John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his excellent essay collection Pulphead, struggles with the question of Truth. He concludes: “Mystery is not despair. The sheer awe inspired by [this] vision makes a sufficiently stable basis for ethics, philosophy, love, and the conclusion that a fleeting consciousness is superior to none, precisely because it suggests magnificent things we cannot know, and in the face of which we simply lack an excuse not to assume meaning.”


The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison
Body Geographic, Barrie Jean Borrich
Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
Reality Hunger, David Shields (John D’Agata, The Next American Essay)
Reality Hunger, David Shields
Reality Hunger, David Shields
“Thanatopsis, Or How the Heat Lost the Finals,” Eric Fershtman
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
“Thanatopsis, Or How the Heat Lost the Finals,” Eric Fershtman
Companion to an Untold Story, Marcia Aldrich
Reality Hunger, David Shields (Gore Vidal, quoted in Lopate)
Reality Hunger, David Shields
Reality Hunger, David Shields (Patricia Hampl, interviewed by Laura Wexler, AWP Chronicle)
Reality Hunger, David Shields (J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point)
Maps to Anywhere, Bernard Cooper (from Foreward by Richard Howard)
Reality Hunger, David Shields
Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
Reality Hunger, David Shields (Nietzsche)
Maps to Anywhere, Bernard Cooper (from Foreward by Richard Howard)
Reality Hunger, David Shields
I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl
Maps to Anywhere, Bernard Cooper
Reality Hunger, David Shields
Body Geographic, Barrie Jean Borrich
Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl
Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl
“Thanatopsis, Or How the Heat Lost the Finals,” Eric Fershtman
Maps to Anywhere, Bernard Cooper
The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison

Eric Fershtman’s work is published/forthcoming in various places, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Seneca Review, The Good Men Project, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Barnstormer. He won the Summer Literary Seminars Emerging Writers Award in 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment