Wednesday morning on the website of the British arts and culture magazine Dazed, David Shields curates a group of writings (essays, poems, journal entries) that foreground “the question of how the writer solves being alive.” The contributors are Wayne Koestenbaum, Sarah Manguso, Ander Monson and L.A.’s own Maggie Nelson — four writers I admire quite a bit for, in Shields’ words, “possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art.”
He continues: “I no longer believe in Great Man Speaks. I no longer believe in Great Man Alone in a Room, Writing a Masterpiece. I believe in art as pathology lab, landfill, recycling station, death sentence, aborted suicide note, lunge at redemption. Your art is most alive and dangerous when you use it against yourself. That’s why I pick at my scabs. … I wanted literary collage to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential.”
In many ways, then, this is part of the project begun with his 2010 book “Reality Hunger,” which used collage and appropriation to poke holes in the traditional trope of the self-contained author telling a linear narrative.
For Shields, such strategies are essential for confronting the mash-up world in which we find ourselves, for reckoning with the instantaneous, and never finished, collage of contemporary cultural life. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him — but then again, I’m not sure I don’t.
In any case, to illustrate the point, he selects pieces from his contributors that highlight the conditional, that take the offhand and render it as art.
“I can’t write you in a book without talking about death, since each book is a little death, and good country is nothing if not mourning. Any writer will tell you this: that publication is a separation, train leaving the station,” Monson writes in “Country Music Death Notices, 1979-1980,” taken from his forthcoming “Letters to a Future Lover,” a set of responses to discoveries made in various libraries over the last seven years. The idea is to resist, or rebel against “the slick disposability of ebooks and deletable pdfs” by paying homage to what remains.
And yet Monson — and by extension, Shields’ other contributors — is too smart to believe that anything is lasting, or that art will redeem us in a permanent way. “[W]hen we are confronted with a library full of … possible lives,” he notes, “we are awed by how much we do not know about the world. We cannot contain even a fraction of this information. We step away to clear our heads. We’re not dead, yet, not today.”
A similar sensibility marks Manguso’s piece, a diary entry about the difficulty of writing anything, and Koestenbaum’s loose poem cycle, which builds off observations, thoughts, what he calls “a higher pitch of ceremony, an occasion for intensified, unmoored consciousness”; “on Mercer / a burst of unnecessary / verbalization,” he writes in the first one.
The point, of course, is that all verbalization is unnecessary — except that it is not. Stories, language, reflection … this is all we have to keep the chaos of the world at bay. “Suppose I were to say that I had fallen in love with a color,” Nelson writes in an excerpt from “Bluets," her 2009 book. “… A voluntary delusion, you might say.”
Yes, voluntary, and at the same time essential. Or, as she explains: “Above all, I want to stop missing you.”