Wayne Koestenbaum was the keynote speaker for the English Students’ Association conference a week or so ago; I knew him by reputation and thought about going to see him. But it would have required leaving work early, and I was already so disoriented and vexed after having attended the conference’s opening panel the night before that I decided one evening of conferencing was enough.
If I’d seen Koestenbaum speak before reading his Viegener review and found him to be a delightful person, the review might have hit me very differently. As it was, I found the tone of the piece so insufferable on first reading that I composed, but did not send, an email to Professor Tougaw asking if it was OK to use profanity when I blogged about it.
To access the, as it turns out, many valid observations in the review, you have to wade through what initially seemed to me a vast swamp of scholarly grandstanding and name-dropping. Although Koestenbaum isn’t responsible for Salon’s stupid, point-missing subhead evoking Joyce and Artaud (which didn’t appear when the piece originally ran in the L.A. Review of Books), the piece itself is just as much of an exercise in highbrow self-congratulation as the subhead would suggest. Lacan’s tranche, Lichtenberg’s scrapbooks (you know, Georg Christophe Lichtenberg! the 18th century German physicist!), your no doubt favorite composers Les Six, the obnoxious parentheses in “Valéry (Carnets)” and “Aaron Kunin (Grace Period),” because of course you’re so familiar with their entire oeuvres that you need clarification as to which Valéry and Kunin. When Koestenbaum suggested that “we, readers, might also feel authorized to stop in the midst of any activity we find no longer worth pursuing,” I was very much tempted to take him at his word and give up on the review.
I eventually calmed down enough to acknowledge that Koestenbaum is doing more here than showing off. His term “parataxis” does accurately capture what Viegener is doing much better than misnomers like “random.” From what we’ve already read in Hustvedt about Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Koestenbaum’s connecting him with Viegener seems apt. Koestenbaum’s comment that Viegener “sides with life against art” in preferring his mother’s living presence over the whole world of conceptual art identifies a key reason Viegener’s book feels as humane as it does. His observation that each of Viegener’s “things” “stops exactly at its own threshold, and never violates the atmosphere by swelling into an unwanted narrative” is arresting and true, although I think the “things” do eventually swell into a larger, more subliminal narrative that Viegener does in fact want.
That said, I can’t help but notice the irony of someone with Koestenbaum’s reference-laden, authority-brandishing approach to art lavishing so much praise on what he sees as Viegener’s simple, essentials-only approach to same. As art aficionados, as cultural commentators, as writers, these two are so different. Where Koestenbaum says, “Viegener has a gin-clear candor,” Viegener himself simply says, “I like the phrase gin-clear.” If Viegener decided to imagine Walter Benjamin playing tennis with Arnold Schoenberg in Hollywood after the war, he would be certain to explain who they were, unobtrusively, in a manner that talked neither up nor down to the reader. Viegener would never use phrases like “a Whitmanic (body-electric) dithyramb reincarnated as a fortune cookie” or “a propositional, investigative, sight-cleansed freshness.” This doesn’t mean that Kostenbaum doesn’t sincerely appreciate Viegener; he may in fact appreciate him the more for being able to achieve effects that Koestenbaum himself is incapable of achieving. But it’s funny to hear Koestenbaum recommending that “literature’s happy futurity” should “involve a practice, like Viegener’s, of mentioning only the observations that matter, stopping immediately afterward, and waiting to speak until the next catalyst for speech arises.” I don’t think for a minute that Koestenbaum intends to apply this practice to his own work — not his prose, at any rate.
Nancy K. Miller is our other CUNY faculty author of the week, and I enjoyed her chapter in a much less conflicted way. I wrote “Yes!” in the margins of this chapter a whole bunch of times. The ‘90s memoir craze represented “the desire for story killed by postmodern fiction”? Yes. “The predominance of women writing memoirs may have something to do with the genre’s disrepute”? Yes, yes, yes. We have a heightened need for memoirs in an age of literal and metaphorical Alzheimer’s disease? Makes a lot of sense to me. Memoir is “a way to have my life turn out better on paper”? For sure. Also, I was delighted that Miller wrote about How I Became Hettie Jones – I’ve read it, and it’s a great book that nobody seems to know about. The Baraka-Joneses are as interesting a literary family as the Jameses, if you ask me: Their daughter, Lisa Jones, is a journalist who wrote great columns about, in her phrase, “race, sex and hair” for the Village Voice in the mid-’90s, which are collected in a book called Bulletproof Diva. And I guess Diane di Prima, who’s pretty interesting in her own right, needs to be included in that family too.
Koestenbaum suggests that memoir is a sentimental zone of jejune sentimentality; Miller is down in the trenches defending its honor. Have they gotten into fistfights in the English lounge yet?