I sometimes get more pleasure from learning a thing’s name than from learning about the thing itself. When, a few years ago, my then girlfriend offered me a potato pancake, I wasn’t impressed, even though she told me about the history behind it. When she called it a latke, on the other hand, I was thrilled. The same thing happened when I found, in my college’s listings, the course title “Literature and Phenomenology.” I had no idea what the latter was, but—phenomenology—it had to be fascinating. This effect is heightened when it comes to the particularly useless or obscure. Take the jargon of rhetoric: anacoluthon, antanaclasis, asyndeton. Soraismus. Lovely. Now, I’m not praising myself. People like me are a less enthusiastic, less entertaining—“Did you say I’m self-righteous? I think you mean comminatory”—version of that guy who makes six to ten puns per day. Such close attention to the sound of language can come at the expense of attention to its meaning. I’m not proud of my tendency to ignore this fact.
I went to college in the late Nineties, which made the problem worse; back then new ideas could be expressed only in new and fun-sounding words or phrases (Rhizome. Ideological sublime). I hadn’t learned to write in the margins of my books, so if you flick through my copy of, say, The Foucault Reader, I won’t be embarrassed by over-enthusiastic exclamation marks or all-caps scribblings of YES! But I know what caught my ear because I marked passages in pen, sometimes quite insistently. And my love of big, complicated sounds (Captatio benevolentiae!) must have led to a love of big, complicated ideas; I obviously enjoyed the sound of “polymorphous techniques of power,” and at some point may even have come to understand what it meant.
I didn’t end up taking “Literature and Phenomenology” (there was required reading over the summer) but I did take almost every other course featuring a post-Nietzschean thinker: “Sartre and de Beauvoir,” was an easy choice, as was “Deleuze and Foucault.” I had to check the listings to ensure that “Philosophy of Language” would include Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault. “Aesthetics” started with Kant but got to Bataille and the twentieth century in the third week; “Feminist Philosophy” included Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous.
I know now that these thinkers can’t really all be lumped together, but at the time what mattered was that they offered me immediate access to big, important questions about the human condition. To do anything interesting in biology, I would have had to go through four years of lab work, then at least three more years in graduate school as I started to understand the complexities of genetic systems. To do something in philosophy, I had to read endless articles in Mind, define a position I had in common with others, then work with them to clarify that position in opposition to very slightly different positions. But men and women like Sartre, Foucault and Irigaray invited me to start thinking right now. I’d been putting it off for eighteen years. The time had come.
So I burrowed into those big problems: What is truth? Does it even exist? How do we justify life after God’s death? What is “literature”? How do we undermine the author function? How can we reject the book, that “encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing … and … against difference in general” (Derrida)? My high school teachers and parents, far from being able to answer, couldn’t even have asked these questions. I was engaged in (anti-)metaphysical, existential battles, and these words and ideas gave me a kind of power I’d never experienced. They made me brave. They also gave me an urgent, relentless mission to disenchant.
And I was courageous in that mission. Where others saw cause for joy, I saw the inevitability of death. Where others saw a freedom, I saw a compulsion: you believe you’re free when you watch televised sport, but I know you’re just part of a power matrix that crushes the third world. Where they found meaning, I recognized an illusion that I had to tear aside to reveal the meaningless of human existence. So when a friend and I started a reading group, and others wanted to talk about the themes in a Peter Carey short story, I wanted to talk about how all narrative is necessarily oppressive, since it assumes life to be a linear movement and a totality, and literature (e.g., Peter Carey) that doesn’t undermine that assumption is, ipso facto, complicit in it. Improbably, I believed I’d won the argument.
This is the kind of excitement and fervor that’s really possible only for adolescents, but I still feel a quiver when I open a reader of existentialism or contemporary critical theory. I look back on it calmly, but in many instances, I still think I was right. In many ways, I am David Shields’s ideal reader.
This is not to say that Shields and I are alike or even all that similar. Shields was born in 1956, attended Brown University, then got an MFA at the University of Iowa. An extremely successful writer, he has published two traditional novels, a novel in stories and a series of mixed-genre non-fiction. Shields has won the PEN/Revson Award and been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle and PEN USA Awards. His works are often on best books of the year lists. He has a prestigious position at the University of Washington, and a daughter. I have written one essay for The Point before this one, and have a dog.
But Shields didn’t really break out with his novels or writings on sport. If his name means anything to you, it’s probably because you’ve heard about the project he has undertaken in his two most recent books, Reality Hunger (2010) and How Literature Saved My Life (2013). Combining quotations, narrative, memoir and argument, the books have been compared to mix-tapes or mash-ups; Shields himself calls them “collages.” But these comparisons hardly do justice to the scope of their ambition. Shields’s recent work gives us a manifesto for, and a model of, a new form of writing. That form is characterized by a “deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material … randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; artistic risk … reader/viewer participation,” and, most infamously, “a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.”
Reality Hunger consists of hundreds of numbered sections, How Literature Saved My Life scores of titled ones. Many of the books’ aphorisms are written by other people, whom Shields quotes without attribution. That has led to some backlash, and Shields has responded with a theoretical defense of plagiarism, but the real question is whether it works, and Shields’s strings of quotation are often effective, allowing him to move fluidly between ideas, arguments and great thinkers—as at the start of Reality Hunger’s chapter “U: Alone”:
Democracy turns man’s imagination away from externals to concentrate on himself alone. … Here, and here alone, are the true springs of poetry among them, and those poets, I believe, who do not draw inspiration from these springs will lose their hold over the audience they intend to charm.
Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors … it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
The appendix (which, Shields says, lawyers forced him to add) tells you these quotes are from Alexis de Tocqueville, but you don’t have to know that to understand their connection to what follows —“It is almost impossible to know someone else completely. We radiate feelings to others, but ultimately we are alone.” That’s from Laszlo Kardis. Contrasts like these, between an early-nineteenth-century French theorist of American democracy and a twentieth-century Hungarian author and editor, allow Shields to build his argument, as Luc Sante put it, “forcefully and passionately, but not like a debate-team captain, more like a clever if overmatched boxer, endlessly bobbing and weaving.”
Much of the commentary about Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life has focused on the form of Shields’s recent writing, and on his demand for new forms; relatively little has been said about the logic behind that demand. In some sense, Shields is heir to the modernists, who thought that new literary forms were needed to deal with the technological, social and economic transformations of the early twentieth century. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” as Virginia Woolf announced in “Modern Fiction.” The older forms of literature were tied to the world of horses and buggies, aristocracy and the riches of empire. Those ties could not be undone, so new literary forms were needed to express the experience of the new world: trains, the bourgeoisie and the democratized masses. Shields argues that our society has witnessed transformations on a similar scale, and that a similarly radical new form of writing is needed to deal with them.
In Shields’s memorable phrases, inhabitants of the twenty-first century have become “obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” This is our reality hunger—we hunger for the feeling that we are experiencing something real. The works that will be best able to satisfy that hunger are those that “foreground … the question of how the writer solves being alive,” the familiar project of European existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Thomas Bernhard. These thinkers didn’t pretend to any certain, objective knowledge; instead they tried to come to terms with the experiences of modern men and women. It turns out that modern experiences are not pleasant, so they also tended toward pessimism, an attitude Shields happily embraces: “Death is my copilot … love equals death, art equals death, life equals death … all literature and all philosophy have come from this.” Shields’s pessimism is bolstered by contemporary advances in cognitive science and genetics, which he says are the ultimate explanations of the human condition: we are animals, determined by our brains, and our genes before them.
Today’s inheritors of existentialism must address two features of this condition above all. First, we are “existentially alone on the planet.” Though awash in images and media, we’re isolated from other people. And second, we no longer experience strong or authentic emotions; “the endemic disease of our time [is] the absence of feeling.” But, according to Shields, neither contemporary fiction nor traditional non-fiction have managed to address these issues:
Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication, aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person that’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels. 
While conventional novels give us “bubble wrap, nostalgia, retreat”—just another manufactured fiction in a fictional world—most nonfiction is confined by the outdated conventions of reportage and fact-checking. Neither are able to convey what it “feels like to be alive right now.”
By contrast, the new nonfiction Shields calls for promises unmediated reality, raw nerve endings and naked feeling. On the one hand, it expresses how it feels to live with reality hunger; on the other, it helps us deal with that hunger by offering us “larger and larger chunks” of the reality we crave. The leading works of the new genre, like Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, make us feel like we are in contact with another “real” person—in some cases the artist, in others the “real” subject of the (quasi-documentary) work. This helps us to “feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else, [we] know someone—[we]’ve gotten to this other person.” We see this, Shields says, in Joe Frank’s radio shows; the quasi-home movie Open Water; pseudo-documentaries like Borat; autobiographical dramatizations like The Eminem Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm; and the “tossed off” poetry of Billy Collins.
Yet Shields remains a pessimist, who believes that “language never fails to fail us.” Literature cannot fully or finally solve our isolation or make us feel authentic emotions. The task for good art now is therefore to address the loneliness and unfeelingness of modern existence, without lying about the fact that it must always fail to resolve it. In the end, “nothing can assuage human loneliness.” But the new nonfiction will at least succeed in failing better.
Shields’s recent books have elated critics and reviewers. “The ideas he raises are so important, his interests are so compelling,” wrote Bookforum’s Jan Attenberg, “that I raved about this book the whole time I was reading it and have regularly quoted it to friends in the weeks since.” Other commentators have praised Shields, in less personal terms, for “challeng[ing] our most basic literary assumptions” (Andrew Albanese), and for offering the most “effective description (and example) of the aesthetic concerns of the internet age” (Edward King). Shields “succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air … waiting for someone to link them together,” wrote Luc Sante, in a New York Times review that compared the book to the Surrealist Manifesto.
The project certainly sounds exciting. Shields focuses on the problems of loneliness and ennui that have worried many recent readers and writers, and he proposes a radical overhaul of literary form to address them. Meanwhile, he brings together dozens of men and women, from the ancient world to the present, who have thought and written about similar problems. Because his work is so broad and ambitious, it’s easy to complain that Shields misuses some of his sources. But he is not doing academic research, and part of the charm of his project is the way he makes such a wide range of figures speak directly to contemporary concerns.
Still, as I read Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life, I began to wonder if they really delivered in the way Shields said they did. The use of different voices is meant to allow Shields to set up a dialogue, but a dialogue requires not just different voices but differing arguments. Whereas in Reality Hunger and HLSML it often sounds as if Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Ben Lerner are all saying the same things—all saying, that is, what Shields is saying. If all the voices in a dialogue agree, no participant takes anything from any of the others, and we can all stay right where we started—alone, disconnected. The more I read, the more it seemed that Shields was, far from using his form to find a way out of the isolation that, he insists, is our greatest problem, simply assimilating every other voice to his own.
The problem was perhaps clearest when I got to Shields’s use of a thinker who has become more important to me than the existentialists and post-Nietzscheans I spent so much time on in college: Theodor Adorno. If you’re familiar with Adorno, you can see why Shields finds him inspiring. He wrote in an aphoristic style (“An element of exaggeration is essential to thought”; “The whole is the false”), alternated registers at will, produced unconventional, highly self-reflexive texts, and frequently crossed over into other genres altogether. The numbered sections and personal spirit of his Minima Moralia—which, Adorno wrote, begins in “the narrowest private sphere” of the émigré intellectual’s experience, but develops into “philosophy, without ever pretending to be complete or definitive”—could have served as a model for Shields’s recent books.
But considering what he wrote about, and why, few thinkers are less appropriate to Shields’s purposes. Shields is obsessed with the big problems that obsessed me when I was in college: death, meaninglessness, loneliness, metaphysical uncertainty. But Adorno argued that such big problems are just ways of (at best) ignoring actual problems or (at worst) contributing to them. When people discuss “the human condition” or “human nature,” Adorno argued, they tend to mistake currently “existing” empirical facts for “existence” as a whole. (It’s as if I, a resident of Los Angeles, said that the human condition involves being a Lakers fan.) Whereas the real problems, the hard problems, are not part of some inescapable condition. They’re historically specific injustices, and they’re our fault.
Adorno first comes up in Reality Hunger where Shields quotes his discussion of the essay in “Essay as Form”:
The usual reproach against the essay, that it is fragmentary and random, itself assumes the givenness of totality and suggests that man is in control of this totality. The desire of the essay, though, is not to filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.
This is followed by lines from the experimental fiction writer David Markson’s Reader’s Block: “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. As is already more than self-evident.” Both of the quotes are used to describe, and perhaps admire, the form of Shields’s own project—fragmented, aphoristic, non-linear.
But Adorno didn’t praise fragmentation in itself. For Adorno, the fragmentary nature of the essay is useful because (and this is what the quote actually says) it allows us to combat the problem of “givenness,” which is an attitude we take when we assume that something is natural and inescapable. An example of that attitude can be found when people say things like “we just have to get out of the way and let the free market work.” And I don’t choose that example innocently. When Adorno said that “man is not in control of this totality,” he meant capitalism. To vastly oversimplify, that’s a social system in which humans (workers) are used as a means to economic ends (e.g., continual growth), rather than one in which economic practices (e.g., increased productivity) are used as means to our ends (e.g., reducing the length of time we have to work to pay for food/clothing/shelter). Accepting that this system is natural and inescapable is quite a depressing way to go about our lives, and the essay’s fragmented form helps us to avoid doing so. The essay, Adorno thinks, has the potential to combine (universalist/eternal) philosophy and (individualist/transitory) literature. In doing so, it stands against our bad society, without pretending that the bad doesn’t exist or that the individual is a unique and special snowflake floating free of it.
Adorno comes up again in the Reality Hunger chapter on “contradiction”:
A successful work is not one that resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one that expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.
This is preceded by Philip Lopate’s advice to the essayist to “develop a dialogue between the parts of yourself that in a way corresponds to the conflict in fiction.” It’s followed by the poet Robert Hass, who says that “there’s nothing and everything going on.” In the first case, Shields’s reader is encouraged to understand Adorno’s “contradiction” to refer to a clash within her personality; in the second, to an overarching metaphysical principle that nothing coheres.
But that’s not what Adorno meant at all. Most of us have some idea of what a good piece of art looks like, and it usually includes something like consistency. A country song about the inevitability of death that starts off slowly, then speeds up to black metal pace for no obvious reason and stops halfway through a line (“It is the familiar place that the road leads toward/ Forever dying and stripped of …” what? Pants? Dignity? The ball? ), won’t make it onto many playlists. But Adorno thought that we shouldn’t overstress consistency. Given that we don’t, at present, live in a harmonious world—i.e., the interests of individuals are not in harmony with the processes of the economy; or, society is contradictory—it seems reasonable to say that consistent, harmonious art works are, in some sense, lies.
So should we just reject the “idea of harmony”? Adorno said not. The idea that a good work of art “embodies the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure” doesn’t mean that it should contain contradiction as a general principle. True, good art doesn’t blithely lie about the continuing existence of disharmony by creating, as most pop music does, a naïvely harmonious tune. But nor does good art simply mirror our disharmonious society by creating irrationally dissonant works, as Shields seems sometimes to recommend. That’s just bad art, like my country cover of a metal song.
In between these two bad options, the best works of modern art express the broken relationship between individual and world by embodying the specific contradiction of our society: economic ends have taken precedence over human ones. So Adorno’s preference was for works constructed with painstaking care; such works (e.g., Beckett, Berg), perhaps despite themselves, hold onto the idea, the final goal, of social harmony. No matter how depressing their content, the forms of Endgame and Wozzeck are utopian. They’re internally inconsistent, but not in a capricious or random way; rather, their contradictions are an image of our own. They’re also moving and effective, incredible artistic achievements—and that achievement in itself is an imperfect image of what we could do, if our interests and our society matched up. Whether such works should take the form of fiction or nonfiction is an irrelevant and even an uninteresting question, from this perspective. Adorno’s continual plea was: don’t replicate the world by acting the way the world acts, because then you’ll just be a part of a bad society; but don’t lie about it, either, because change will only come when we understand the problem, and the responsibility we bear for it.
But Shields uses Adorno to suggest almost the exact opposite. In Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life, he takes disharmony as a natural given of the human condition that cannot be overcome, and suggests that good art should strive simply to reproduce it. Adorno would see such art as irrational and nihilistic—and, despite some press to the contrary, these were the two characteristics he was most desperate to avoid. In fact Adorno, far from seeing art as quenching our “reality hunger,” embraced the fact that art gets between us and society, scorning the promise of direct, “immediate” contact. The real problems, Adorno argued, are not the human condition, death, or metaphysical disharmonies, but the specific injustices of our time: [Insert your favorite example here, there’s no shortage, economic, environmental, political, etc. … My current favorites are rising ocean levels and the combination of record high corporate profits with wages that have remained stagnant since the 1970s]. Talk about the human condition will do nothing to solve the problem you inserted in the brackets; nor is that problem something we must accept as a metaphysical necessity.
Of course Shields doesn’t have to understand the ins and outs of all the philosophies from which he quotes. But his use of Adorno points to a larger problem. Recall his motto, “death is my copilot … all literature and all philosophy have come from this,” and its quick slide from death is my copilot, to the claim that all literature and philosophies are copiloted by death. Shields’s work is, in fact, informed by his own discomfort with the idea, and fact, of death. But the leap from my philosophy to all philosophy should give you pause, particularly given how often he makes the same move (“I feel so remote from things … we’re existentially alone on the planet”).
Many writers have taken their own experiences to be evidence for the experiences of all human beings; many have, like Shields, tried “to convey what it feels like for one human being to be alive, and by implication, all human beings.” But although Shields claims throughout his writing that what he wants is access to another consciousness, he ends up isolating himself—capable of hearing what Adorno has to say for him, but not what he has to say to him. He is like a man who builds a prison around himself and then complains about the guards. Shields and his friends, he tells us, can only communicate to one another that “life is shit. We are shit.” But maybe Shields and his friends don’t constitute the whole world.
When he was at Brown, Shields (he notes it with appropriate irony) “actually scratched into the concrete wall above my carrel, ‘I shall dethrone Shakespeare.’” At Iowa, he grew out of this hope because he was surrounded by instructors who helped him realize that he should write what he knows. This, the first commandment of American fiction, has been attributed to Twain and Hemingway, among others. It’s a truism, in a sense—you can’t write anything you don’t know—but the directive is often used to justify writing that is childish and self-indulgent. The novelist Nathan Englander suggests, plausibly enough, that “write what you know” is really a statement about emotions: write what you feel. And this is more or less where Shields lands with his paraphrase: instead of trying to be a genius, “you write out of your own experience.”
But, judging from his recent writing, Shields hasn’t outgrown his ambition to be a genius; he’s just decided that he can achieve it by writing what he feels, a commitment that conveniently saves him the trouble of ever having to learn anything new.  And the result is predictable: in the absence of concrete knowledge, he moves straight from his own intensely personal experience (“I feel so alone…”) to the universal conclusions that “life equals death”; “language never fails to fail us”; “the endemic disease of our time is the absence of feeling”; or—a flashback to my Peter Carey reading group—“fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though … flies at us in bright splinters.” What fiction does that? Whose life?
Two of the most disturbing (in a bad way) passages in Shields’s recent books show, perhaps even more lucidly than his appropriation of Adorno, the potential excesses of his approach. At the age of thirty, Shields encountered Milan Kundera’s claim that it’s not hard to write “about the intersection of personal and political lives … when you go to the grocery store and the cannon of a Soviet tank is wedged into the back window.” He theorized that the American version of that tank is the fictional nature of American life, “the ubiquity of the camera, the immense power of the camera lens on our lives, on my life, on the way I think about life.” Similarly, in Reality Hunger, Shields informs us that the point of Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow is to show how “wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge.”
A bit of context: after the reformist Prague Spring of 1968 (Kundera took part, and was later expelled from the Party), Czechoslovakia was invaded and occupied by the U.S.S.R.; between 1948 and 1989, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for their political beliefs. The Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975. Between one and three million Cambodians, around twenty percent of the population, were executed, died in labor camps, or died in famines that were more or less caused by Khmer Rouge policies—in four years.
What kind of a person, I wonder, responds to Kundera’s revealing statement by immediately wondering how oppressed he is, or compares “wall-to-wall media” to the Cambodian genocide?  Such a person would have to take for granted all of the assumptions of the post-boomer, post-avant-garde American public intellectual, including: there is something deep within me that I’m inherently unable to express; life has been drained of meaning; the human animal never gets what it wants; anything we put into language is inevitably distorted; we’re all terrified of and obsessed with death; all “truth” is “relative”; the Internet Blogs MySpace Texting Facebook Smart Phones Twitter Cloud Computing Tumblr Vine Reddit Instagram have has fundamentally changed the world, which is why nobody reads anymore; we want to connect with reality, but can’t, and that’s tragic; our time is uniquely chaotic and everything has to change in order to adjust to that chaos. Someone sufficiently immersed in this intellectual culture might well note that he, like the victims of the Khmer Rouge, is suffering (for all the reasons listed above), and that his suffering is as deep as the suffering of others. Someone immersed in this culture might be incapable of understanding anyone other than himself, might believe in the importance of theorizing about the effects of choosing to watch lots of television, and be unable to distinguish between that theorizing on the one hand, and, on the other, brutal and/or genocidal military repression. Thankfully, our language does not fail to provide a word for this kind of person: an adolescent. Unless he’s an adult; in that case, we call him a narcissist.
The big succès de scandale of the late 1970s, (as controversial as Reality Hunger), was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Today people still read the book as a cry against American egoism, which makes sense given what happened to the country in the following years. But Lasch wasn’t worried that his contemporaries were too selfish. He was worried that otherwise normal Americans displayed the character traits of clinical narcissists. They found it difficult to connect with the world, because they didn’t recognize their own boundaries: “The point of the story is not that Narcissus falls in love with himself but, since he fails to recognize his own reflection, that he lacks any conception of the difference between himself and his surroundings.” The narcissist simply doesn’t understand that there are people who don’t have his experiences and understanding of the world, or that there is a world that is not a part of himself. The “cure,” so to speak, is a “recognition of our need for and dependence on people who[m we recognize] … as independent beings with desires of their own. More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits.” Understanding our own limits allows us to live with and for others—we recognize that we need them, and, in fact, come to find comfort in this fact. If we’re fortunate, we discover, with others, “a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning.”
Clinical cases aside, this describes what happens, or should happen, when (particularly middle-class) people grow up. We leave home and have to find ways to live without the rules and customs that the family unit provides. Like many teenagers, I rebelled. I wanted to be my own man, so I had to cut through all the filters that other people—parents, teachers, even friends—set up around me, to go beyond everything upon which I had, until then, depended: hence my mission to disenchant. But doing that is scary, so, like most teenagers, I also looked for certainty, things I could fall back on, anchors in culture (anarchism, post-structuralism, punk) and in what I took to be my personality (straight-edge, dying my hair black—not a good idea—wearing mismatched socks). Like most teenagers, I incessantly joined or identified with parties, teams and groups, while also trying to abolish the rules and customs that allow groups to function. Now, thank god, much of this is behind me: I find pleasure and meaning in the fact that I depend on other beings who are radically different from me. My wife, for instance. Sometimes my dog.
Like all memoirists, David Shields has been attacked for being self-obsessed. But he’s not self-obsessed: he’s a narcissist. Shields is unable to recognize the difference between his experience of the world—as an extremely privileged, intelligent, highly educated American—and the experiences of others. So he assimilates everyone else’s experiences to his own. At the same time, he wants to make grand proclamations about the human condition, which leads him to the wild and abstract language of existentialism and post-structuralism. (As a lonely ambivalent review suggested, his works “might be mistaken for the notebook of a naïve undergraduate after a first encounter with Postmodernism 101.”) But the worst of it is that Shields is just one instance of a group of American intellectuals—particularly prevalent in the arts—that live as narcissists. Having never grown up, they congratulate one another for gossiping about the endlessly important topics of sex, loneliness, death, and the fact that life is shit.
Not surprisingly, these literati have come out strongly in favor of Shields’s work. Jonathan Lethem was “astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed” by Reality Hunger. Chuck Klosterman thought it “might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years.” Wayne Koestenbaum described it as “the book our sick-at-heart moment needs—like a sock in the jaw or an electric jolt in the solar plexus—to wake it up.” Sam Tanenhaus explained that the book “tells us that everybody is doing everything wrong,” while for Jonathan Safran Foer Reality Hunger was “more than thought provoking”—it was beautiful. And the attention to his ideas apparently extends beyond flattery, at least as Shields tells it: “I see my work endlessly inscribed and reinscribed in other people’s work. … Sometimes the bigger ideas behind a work, to me, that come from my work are not credited, and sometimes a tiny line’s credited.”
No doubt, there’s something very attractive about the conversation Shields has with his friends. I know I once appreciated being able to talk about the human condition before I knew anything about the conditions under which most people actually live. Moreover, short of joining a revolutionary movement—there are almost none—it can feel as if there’s very little you or I can do on our own to improve the world immediately. I try not to use A/C; like everyone else, I obsess about what I eat; I’ve stopped using plastic bags. But as my father never tires of pointing out, e.g., “studies have shown” that plastic bags contribute only (say) 0.01 percent of a nation’s trash—meaningless. It can be charming to read, every now and then, a book which claims to have identified the one big problem and a way of solving it, thus relieving us of helplessness, or, even better, to have shown that the one big problem is insoluble, thus relieving us of further guilt. But, pleasure aside, you only need to deal with one hundred small, real problems like plastic bags and you’ll effect a one percent reduction in trash, which is hardly insignificant. If we’re extraordinarily lucky, we might be able to survive with a fifty percent reduction, which means dealing with 5,000 such problems, one at a time.
As it happens, I borrowed How Literature Saved My Life from the Los Angeles Public Library. A previous reader had left a post-it in the book. S/he’d written on it something that sounds like a thought David Shields would quote: “In a universe so indifferent to our fate—how best to endure—to go on.” My first thought was that the universe isn’t indifferent to our fate, any more than my desk is indifferent to my fate: the universe is not the kind of thing that could be interested or indifferent. My second thought was that I have a family and friends, none of whom are indifferent to my fate.
My third thought was to look up the sponsor of the Post-It, Kaletra. It’s a brand of AIDS medication.
There really are some people for whom life is a daily struggle. I’m pretty sure that the point and meaning of life is to ensure that as few as possible have to exist in that way. And that’s only possible if we stop assuming that we all do.