Conversations with McGann
Always a question grad students have to answer to their non-academic kin, what are you doing with your life? In the end, an academic answer won’t do, of course, but it will do to rehearse one amongst us, in the silence of our shops. Against the idea of the eternal, there is the idea that questions have as much of a history as their answers (or is it replies?):
- 1978: Mira, mami, I learning English con la enciclopedia britanica.
- 1988: …and your shaded breasts follow far to my bedside wall but no more, lions of lust hounding my run, oh, Giselle!..
- 1998: My beauty is better than your beauty (a variant of your money is dirty to me)
- 2000: Leave me alone!… you’re interrupting my reading.
- 2002: Who do you think writes movies? English graduates write movies, that’s who!
- 2006: Injustice!
- 2010: I’m on the job market, already. They pay professors $50K to start, you know.
History of a reply, but also the history of a lie. The history of the truth can be found instead in lost files cowering in the folder sub-stratae of my hard drive (a suitable pataphor for the only memory I know). There is a 1996 poem there I juveniled in conversation with “the new Walt Whitman,” Campbell McGrath, who was then starting his teaching stint at FIU :
The Unpublished Cemetery.
C’est sous terre;
Ça n’en sort
What a place this cemetery,
full of life and kisses,
faces long and lanky, familiar
faces. I love Mondays
to relish meaty burgers
with Marti, how we raise
the Unknown Poets on round tables.
Or Tuesdays and Wednesdays:
we pretend this is Montmartre.
“Look,” says Miss B. “I finally finished
Lamia,” and Thursday nights
we line up for the Kane’s very
serious workshops in fiction,
leave us brooding about grounds
browed in earnest meditation.
“Do I really understand you?”
Then Friday comes with song,
as our elegant ladies get drunk,
idling for their beaus to come
and drive them to the ball.
And Saturday finds us all behind
Adam, the Venezuelan Bukowski,
trumpeting “El día de los muertos,”
leading the sad silent march
back to our niches, (the lucky
niches: no bugs no dripping) unlike
the lavish mausoleums, houses
of the grave and solemn souls
of the famous.
And even if we rest on Sundays, who says
the dead don’t get around much anymore?
And for many years the truth was there, where no one asked for it: the truth about beauty and presence and justice; the difference between difficulty and popularity, art and politics, high-brow, low-brow; the role of the humanities; the futility and usefulness of books; answers, not mere replies, but only in so far as the files remain ignored (then with strange extensions like .wpd and .wps, now with universal handle bars like .doc and .html).
And here is where truth must remain. Hors panthéon. Which does not immediately belie your exhortation (in the form of a declaration), that scholars are (should be) the stewards of our cultural memory, but…
On the question of Yourcenar and truth
She is right, of course, to write Hadrian’s memoirs, to replace the lost ones we should dare say. And to do it in the grandiose style of la mot juste, bravo! I have wrestled with this conundrum recently in my overblown review of Walcott’s White Egrets. I rightly predicted that my print editor would curb my enthusiasm by deleting the baroque out of my lies. In an interesting twist of fate, because of their current copyright manias, I was allowed to publish “only” the pre-print in my blog, thereby preserving the only truth of my review intact: its histrionics. Wo Es war, soll Ich werden…
Trying to distill my own pleasure in these long pseudo-iambic sentences was only the latest chapter in a decade’s worth of planning a coup d’etat in the White House of literature… but only in so far as the files remain ignored (and in this neglect, that I may never cure myself of the envy and despair that comes from trying to make sense out of Paris Hilton or the gospel of prosperity).
The rebellion is arduous and worth your love and commitment, precisely because it rejoices in programmatic surprises. The gimmick, the McGuffin, the Turn of the Screw? Why, a true world literature, a hyper-realism, a post-card from Babylon, cheating on the Mother Tongue, if you will.
Maybe it started in March 16, 2007 when le Monde published the manifesto, “Pour une « littérature-monde » en français,” or maybe it was a dream I had in 1998 before my first divorce. It’s hard to tell now. The bottom line is I wanted to write a novel in 4 or more languages without translation, without apologies. Not Finnegans Wake, mind you. I wanted something else. I wanted the language to be akin to living speech when it came from the mouths of the characters and playful when it came from the narration. I came up with a ‘modern’ story, in the sense of a post-Borges story: A Miami pizza delivery guy who has the best sex of his life in a wet dream will try to repeat the dream by trying to relive the day before. Of course, Fidel Castro dies the day after, and the turmoil that ensues transfigures the already impossible task of reliving a day and enslaving a dream.
Unbeknown to our foolish Pizza guy, the girl of the dream leaves the Gold Coast for the Caribbean three centuries before in search of her abducted father. To protect herself and travel far and wide through our coasts, she must disguise herself as a man and join a band of pirates. She dies without finding her father, but her spirit carries on through the history of the Caribbean giving me an excuse to do the novelistic thing. A relevant and yet inconsequential plot… but the languages: There’s the rub! A literature that cannot be classified under any national literature. A ridiculous “book,” as unforeseen as it was inevitable.
Chapters haunting the pre-conscious of my PC: A chapter in which our hero tries to deliver a pizza as the dreams of the Miami Cubans all come to life (written in Spanglish); a chapter in which our heroine and her band of pirates discuss Descartes before a raid on a Spanish galleon (written in Calvinist French); but most important of all for our conversation, a chapter in which the post-mortem heroine finds herself in the midst of a revolution in The Republic of Letters.
The revolution is lead by a band of intrepid hackers aiming to overthrow the doddering rule of Quixote and his young protégé Daedalus. Thinking through the alternative world of a republic of letters, where all the characters of all the fables have vied for power, stole, traded, dreamt of a better world, of our world, can be quite an exercise in patacriticism. You should try it once. There is something of course of a dynastical bent to the history of this world, starting with the pseudo-mythical era of the oral stories, the era of the warring parchments, the Guttenberg revolution, and so on and so forth to the hackers. In the end though, as much as we will have to get rid of power linked to capital, or the nation-state, if democracy and humankind are to survive in our world (not that we need to), my republic of letters will get rid of permanence and fame, or at the very least, of their inflation.
Again, to pause here, at the Lacanian moment of the point de capiton: Why do it? Why feed 10 or 15 years to a preposterous monster which is bound to be by its own nature ignored by editors, (un)published on a fragile string of electronic instructions, readable only by a handful of polyglots, ignored by Google, evanescent? Because it has never been done in the history of letters? Vain. Because it has the noble pretension of undermining the myth of the nation-state? Naive.
And to this the answer must be always non-academic: Leave me alone!… you’re interrupting my writing.