Monday, March 14, 2011

On David Shields' Manifesto

This is the NYTBR mini-description of the new paperback edition of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto: “Comprising 618 numbered fragments–more than half drawn from other sources–Shields’ spirited polemic argues that our deep need for reality is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature. The book itself is an example of what the author calls “recombinant” art: appropriated, adapted, and remixed to crate new meaning.”

That’s a mostly accurate description. More precisely: he is bored by linearity and plot. Although he eschews fiction in one breath, in another he wishes to acknowledge that once it’s on the page it’s all fiction, and, in fact, though he enjoys playing the curmudgeon, there is much he loves about literature. This list from his website is basically drawn from the book:

Go to the “Very Partial Reading List” link. It’s a terrific list.

I could, I fear, write a long essay concerning the very conflicted feelings that the book engendered in me. I find that I love arguing with it, and true, to my fashion, tend to question my arguments.

Those last two sentences describe exactly how I feel about this book. And yet, these sentences are not mine (but Shields would say they, in fact, are mine). They are Shields’ words, from fragment 586. However I present them exactly as Shields presents the thoughts or works of others, that is: unattributed and lacking quotation marks. At the end of the book, at the insistence of his publishers (he says) is a vague list of sources. (I found myself turning back to it compulsively and often, although Shields claims he really wishes we readers wouldn’t do that).

My only real complaint is that his debt to David Markson is, I think, much much greater than he lets on. Markson deserves better. But I suppose he would say that Markson had his sources, too: Nietzsche, for example.

Despite, as the NYTBR claims, only about half the work is actually fresh to Shields, I have to admit, he holds his own among the luminaries he unattributes. No small thing, believe me.
An example (of the Shields within Shields, from #455):

“The entire play is the Hamlet Show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietzsche does in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And then, down a few lines, this parenthetical observation: “(Melville’s marginal comment on one of the soliloquies in the play: ‘Here is forcibly shown the great Montaigneness of Hamlet.’)”

This leads to Shields’ very interesting conjecture that Hamlet is killed to fulfill the needs of the plot, otherwise he could go on talking forever (except, of course, for the plot of Shakepeare’s life which due to his presumed humanness would have to end and thus end the outpouring of words from Hamlet’s mouth). Oh, but wait, “reality” doesn’t have plots, according to DS (the other DS).

But the point that strikes me here is this: what a lovely chain! If we “straighten it out, chronologically (oh no! linearity!):

Me (and Shields’ other readers)
You (that’s, like, three people)

(Into this scheme, insert arrows, most downwards etc)

Melville sees Montaigne in Shakespeare; Shields sees Nietzsche in Shakespeare: not chronological, of course. This reminds me of Nietzsche’s reversal of cause and effect: we know the pin has pricked our finger because we feel the pain, thus we move from effect to cause.

In any case, Montaigne is hardly the Big Bang, right? Montaigne has his influences, too.

Thus we are all links in the metonymic chain.

So, these are my thoughts on one of the 618 fragments. And I have one more anecdote (for now) concerning this book. I was reading this interview by Caleb Powell conducted with Shields on The Rumpus:

Shields comes across as a bit prickly, and Powell has an axe to grind with the book, yet the interview did nothing if not convince me that I had to get a hold of the book as soon as possible. I went to Amazon, saw all the books in my “cart” that I haven’t yet been able to convince myself to buy and got depressed. I allowed the “cart” to defeat me.

No less than a half hour later, the mail came to my office and I had to sign for a package. It was an unbidden examination copy of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, sent with compliments of the publisher. As Shields would say, this is a better story for the fact that is true; anyone could have make it up. It’s only interesting because it happened.