Those anxieties I mentioned a week ago are still around, but the sickness has compounded into a full-blown case of pneumonia.
I’ve been sick the past few days, with what feels like the bronchitis my office mate had for the past two weeks: joint and bone and muscle aches, a rasp in the chest that’s blossoming into a productive cough, digestive yuckiness, and a pervasive droopy-lidded tiredness. So in between fits of grading, I’ve been drinking lots of juice and water, and trying to sleep as much as I can.
But that sleep’s been punctuated by whatever various symptoms waking me up, and also the bizarre half-asleep dreams about work: I’ve been absolutely certain that when I park down by the Hudson and walk up to my office, policy mandates that I investigate whether there are any fresh seafood vendors (on the Hudson?) at the Army’s South Dock, and if so, that I purchase and bring up an assortment for the Department and fill out a slip to be reimbursed. Or that rather than using the web and email to assist classroom instruction, I need to make myself a part of the growing circulating pool of cell phones in use by cadets for one-to-one communication with teachers, and that in order to do so effectively, I’ll have to set aside a significant portion of my monthly budget to add my own set of circulating cell phones to the pool. Or that I’ll mention the Kairos special issue I’m co-guest-editing to my cadets, and offer an example of the types of webtexts we’re looking for, and the cadets will communicate that to the Department, who will take said example as a promise of scholarship to be accomplished within the coming year, so I’ll set aside several hours to write a quick-and-dirty Disputatio piece, and Cheryl will like it so much (my anxieties, unfortunately, aren’t modest) that she’ll insist I write several such pieces for each issue.
Which would all be funny in their ridiculousness — fish, cell phones, mandatory Disputatio — except that for five or six hazy half-awake muddled minutes, I’ll be quite sure that I need to figure out a plan to address these tasks before I go to work the next day, and I’ll fall asleep trying to figure out which buildings the seafood vendors are hiding behind.
It’s 9:58 at night and I’m on my back porch, with two cat carriers — one open, one closed — sitting on the concrete about a meter from my feet, both facing away.
I’m thinking more about David Foster Wallace and his suicide. I’ve looked at the considerations and obituaries in their various venues; thumbed back through some volumes. I’m dismayed (albeit unsurprised) by NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s true-to-form small-souled nastiness, and find Laura Miller’s writing on Wallace for Salon probably closest to a true, careful, and generous account of what he seemed to be trying to do.
There’s a kitten in the closed carrier. The other one’s empty. There’s a breeze, and the temperature’s dropping.
Spencer gently chides the NYT and the Washington Post for superficial imitations of what they perceived as Wallace’s style. I worry that I’m probably doing here something like what Spencer decried: trying hard to think like Wallace; trying to work through — via feeble approximation — why his writing was important to me.
I talked to K. at the market tonight. I asked her if she knew anyone missing a kitten. No, she said. But there were five down at the laundromat last week and one got its paw stuck under the machine. Just wandering around.
Wallace’s prose avoided the bathos I’m performing here. The appeals to emotion he made tended to be complex, nuanced, and — for me — embarrassingly honest in his nonfiction. That essay about the cruise? My immediate, gut reaction: what an arrogant prick. It took me a while to figure out how hard one had to work for that unvarnished an account, and how what seemed like narcissism was its opposite, its undercutting. And not just its opposite, but something more: a scrupulous, sometimes obsessive concern with what was ethical in writing.
Saturday night, my own cats were all a-bristle, so I wandered outside with a flashlight. Three pairs of amber eyes reflecting back at me. Gray mama and two black tortie kittens in the side yard. No collars. I asked the neighbors: nothing. The next afternoon, in the garage, one lone black tortie, maybe six weeks old. Right now, she’s sitting out here in the closed carrier, getting hoarser as I type with how much she’s meowing.
I re-read Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” today. It’s remarkable: a meditation on suffering, written for a culinary magazine. And it got me thinking: that’s really what everything he wrote was about. As far as music goes, my generation’s artist was Kurt Cobain, for whom nearly every song was in some way a suicide note. Our writer is Wallace, and everything he’s written, in one way or another, has been about suffering.
The gray mama’s been back twice. She’ll approach within about two meters if I bait her with food. No second kitten: five down to three down to two, and now, here, alone in her carrier, one. And me sitting beside that lone kitten, typing away, using her as bait, as well. Hoping to trap mama. I went inside about an hour ago, and peeked out from the kitchen window. Without me there, mama was there at the carrier, paw out, touching kitten; kitten with both paws out through the grate.
Again: bathos. But trying to negotiate that line between emotion and critical self-consciousness. And that question of emotion and its associated concern with cognition is at the heart of “Consider the Lobster,” just as cognition and its association with suffering travel throughout Wallace’s work. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take the kitten to the shelter, where she’ll be spayed and tested and get her shots, and — I hope — perhaps eventually forget that, as angry and bitchy and hissy as my cats were to have her in the house, she could not stop from wanting to go toward them, could not stop from being lonely, could not stop from wanting to be with beings that looked like her. Or that I used her to try to catch her mama, out here, tonight.
I began this wanting to make a point about how Wallace wasn’t our Pynchon or our Gaddis. I wanted to use that quotation pseudo-literati like me think nobody else has heard, that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” to assert that Wallace was, in fact, our Kafka. But that feels like a pale and small assertion to end an overly long and maudlin post with.
I’ll go to the shelter tomorrow.
The most ambitious and talented American fiction writer of recent memory has committed suicide. People of my generation said he was our Pynchon or Gaddis, and to a degree, I agreed: while I found his essays and short fiction simultaneously amazing and infuriating, Infinite Jest was the book that got me excited again about the possibilities of American fiction; the book that once again — after far too long — made false Hofstadter’s claim that in a time when the ocean of knowledge has burst its shores, the encyclopedic novel is no longer possible; that we could never again have another Don Quixote, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Zauberberg, Gravity’s Rainbow, or any other work that adequately encompassed the world and knowledge and spirit of its age. Infinite Jest did so, brilliantly.
I’m sad to know he’s gone.
Two weeks ago, I was happy to receive two emails from NCTE notifying me that my co-proposed special interest group (SIG) meeting and panel presentation for CCCC had been approved: it looks like I’m headed back to San Francisco in March of 2009. The SIG, “Writing at the Military Service Academies,” will be a welcome opportunity to exchange ideas with writing faculty from the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Virginia Military Institute, the Citadel, the Coast Guard Academy at New London, and the post-secondary academy prep schools; and also an opportunity to talk to other curious folks from outside the Academies about the unique nature of what we do, and about the ways that — as we wrote in our proposal — “many of the challenges faced by composition today are crystallized by the service academies’ hierarchies, structures, and obligations.”
But of perhaps broader interest to composition scholars — especially given past strong critiques of the ways we rhetorically frame the work of our discipline — might be the panel presentation I’m on (hat tip to Aerobil for passing on Jungian title inspiration), and the other folks on that panel. I think some sparks may likely fly, but even given those anticipated sparks, I think (and hope) we’ll manage to have a productive, respectful set of brief presentations, and I’m excited about the discussion that I hope will follow. At last year’s CCCC, I heard Cheryl Glenn, Peter Elbow, and Bruce Ballenger all express, in various ways, the concern that our discipline isn’t very good at representing what we do (or what we ought to do) to those outside the discipline. The panel I’m on attempts to engage a (very) wide range of perspectives responding to that concern — and yeah, we’re gonna have some fun in breaking down the walls of our various echo chambers.