Eileen Myles thinks some of the world’s best writing is pathetic (and that’s good)

Candid photo of a woman smiling
Eileen Myles’ new anthology, “Pathetic Literature,” grew out of a pathbreaking conference at UC San Diego.
(Carlos Avila Gonzalez / San Francisco Chronicle via AP)


Pathetic Literature

Edited by Eileen Myles
Grove: 688 pages, $34

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Look up the word “pathetic” and you’ll get a variety of definitions. “Pitifully inferior or inaccurate,” Merriam-Webster tells us. But also: “having the capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity.” And: “marked by sorrow or melancholy: SAD.” It’s these last two connotations that interest Eileen Myles. “In general poems are pathetic and diaries are pathetic,” Myles explains in the introduction to “Pathetic Literature,” the huge — and (I hope) hugely influential — anthology Myles has edited. “Really literature is pathetic. Ask anyone who doesn’t care about literature. They would agree. If they bothered at all.”

Myles is being tongue-in-cheek but also has a larger point. The anthology grows out of a conference at UC San Diego in 2006, where Myles, who uses they/them pronouns, was teaching a “Pathetic Literature” seminar. Many of the subjects and participants — Chris Kraus and Valerie Solanas, Can Xue and Robert Walser — appear in the book. Gathering more than 100 pieces spanning centuries (the earliest is an excerpt from “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” identified as a formative pathetic text), this is a collection that makes an argument or, even more, aspires to frame a counter-tradition of literature.

Milan Kundera did something analogous in the 1980s when he imagined Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” as “one of those great lost opportunities” in the history of the novel. What Kundera was addressing, or arguing for, was a lineage based on what he called “brilliant disorder.” Myles is after a similar disruption. “I know that language changes by use,” they write, “mostly in the mouth of the underclass but I wonder if a book can be a new mouth and lips to re-make a word’s intention on this day in a culture.”


For Myles, this new mouth and lips become a collaborative creation. “Pathetic Literature” is an anthology rich in allusions: One piece speaks to another across geography and time. Moving fluidly from Jorge Luis Borges, Chester Himes and Victor Hugo to contemporary figures such as Michelle Tea, Justin Torres and Layli Long Soldier (whose poem “38” is a vivid tour de force), the book is arranged alphabetically by first name, as if to turn our preconceptions inside out.

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“Yes I have committed acts of indecency with women,” writes Judy Grahn in “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” “and most of them were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.” Grahn, an early gay activist, is recalling her discharge from the Air Force for being a lesbian, although the acts she describes as indecent have nothing to do with the military’s terms. Rather, they are those “lacking courage”: “I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die before my eyes or in my ears or under my hands because I thought I could do nothing,” she reveals.

The cover of "Pathetic Literature."
(Grove Atlantic)

Here we get at a real sense of what it means to be pathetic, which is, in the most basic terms, to feel. “Oh, this language of pestilence,” Laurie Weeks laments in her essay “Worms Make Heaven,” which begins with a tragedy so mundane and negligible — the death of a worm vivisected by a shovel while the author was gardening — that it’s almost too small to consider meaningful. This represents (to re-appropriate a cliché) pathos in action, although the power of the piece resides in the way Weeks uses it for more nuanced ends. “Worms don’t feel pain,” her father used to tell her. But now she wonders: “How can anything alive NOT feel pain and remain alive?”

It’s no coincidence that Weeks was one of the original participants in the Pathetic Literature conference at UCSD, nor that her piece sits at the center of the book. “Worms Make Heaven” can be read as a hinge, a fulcrum, a mirror through which the pathetic is refracted and understood. Like Weeks’ guilt about the worm, “Pathetic Literature” seeks to contain all the things that can’t be said and all the stories that can’t be told.

Sometimes these moments are right in front of us, as in Rebecca Brown’s “The Gift of Sight,” in which a caregiver looking after a man dying with AIDS finds a tragic and beautiful moment of reconciliation as he waits for his mother to arrive. “You’ll see your mother soon,” the narrator insists, before turning to address us: “I held him and told him again and again. I held him until his mother arrived. Then I put him in her arms.”


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I defy you to read that passage without choking up. I’m choking up right now. Pathetic? Sure it is, in the sense that it provokes emotion. As Myles insists, “It’s an empathetic thing.” So too, with the excerpt from Franz Kafka’s excoriating “Letter to His Father” — “Sometimes,” he writes, “I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it. And I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that either are not covered by you or are not within your reach.” And Simone Weil’s missive to another kind of father, “Letter I: Hesitations Concerning Baptism,” in which she acknowledges (and apologizes for) not loving God enough. This is private literature rendered public — a move that recalls Sei Shōnagon, who admits of her “Pillow Book” that it was only after a courtier read the pages she had previously kept hidden that “this book first became known — or so it is written.”

The weave is so all-encompassing, the associations so multilayered, that I feel like fireworks are popping off inside my head. I want to think about these lines of communication: Kafka to Weil to Chantal Akerman, all writing on parents; Maggie Nelson also quoting Shōnagon: “Whatever people may think of my book, … I still regret that it ever came to light.”

I want to think about all this pathos, this emotion taking place between the lines and across the centuries. I want to think about these writers in conversation not only with one another but also within the imagination of the editor. More than anything, of course, the echoes belong to Myles, which is what gives “Pathetic Literature” a sensibility that is authorial as much as curatorial.

“It’s a dictionary really,” Myles concludes. “I’ve been assembling this dictionary all my life I mean. I think everyone should be able to pick a word that moves them, and occupy it. Time does that over scores or hundreds of years, and many voices pour over it like the ocean, … that’s how a word shifts.”

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Read that way, “Pathetic Literature” represents not so much a collection as it does an ethos: “almost a poem,” its creator observes. These texts and voices take us someplace unexpected, beyond the individual and into the realm of a collective, a tapestry of words that add up to a way of being in the world.

Ulin is a former book editor and book critic of The Times.