halls of mirrors

As is the case everywhere else, we must, in the novel, distinguish between making tools and reflecting on the tools made.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

I had the pleasure of asking a teenager a difficult question. My former university hosted an Ethics Bowl, where high schoolers and college students compete by responding to contemporary ethical dilemmas using moral philosophy. They’d noted John Locke as defending the preservation of as many rights as is possible. I asked them if they could justify the preservation of rights secularly, as Locke had rooted his defense in the Garden of Eden. They looked at one another and repeated their point.

The pleasure of being a judge in these sorts of competitions is the opportunity to play mouthpiece to the doubtful part of yourself. I don’t know how to justify the preservation of rights as much as possible, but what I hoped to find, in the students’ answer, was a recognition of the applicability of a question like that. Regardless of the availability of an answer, the question makes sense to ask.

Much later, I came across Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” referencing books I haven’t read and terms for literary canon that I am not familiar with, but found a familiar refrain. The two paths seem to deal primarily with what a person can control, and what she can’t. The first path, presented by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, seems to affirm that there is some hope, for control, or clear thinking, such that one can make choices in the world, such that it makes sense to go on being in the world. The second path, presented by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, is either a cynicism about that interaction between you and what you can’t control, or a denial of that interaction being ‘settled’ in favor of either party. Both paths involve a self-consciousness of being novels, and accordingly take a stance on what novels can do.

The first path seems obvious to me. Looking back over what I’ve written, so often how I’ve defended (even only privately) a piece of art rests upon how it reinvigorates oneself. Notably, the kind of invigoration I’m talking about doesn’t involve selling everything you own and sailing around the world, but rather getting up, just as you did yesterday, and giving it one more day. And like my difficult question to that teenager, there is an obvious question with applicability here: why is it good to keep on giving it one more day? Surely it must be the case that, sometimes, it isn’t. Someone I met briefly in a sweaty Colorado hostel once told me it boiled down to food and sex and compliments.

At the very least, this sort of art makes sense to make. At the very least, it makes sense to write novels that are optimistic about the writing of novels, such that a good novel can keep you going. Work on the second path is less clear to me. Reviewing Nabokov, Sartre might have said it best:

Mr. Nabokov (whether out of timidity or scepticism is not clear) is at pains not to invent a new technique. He mocks the artifices of the classical novel, but ends up using them himself, even if it means suddenly foreshortening a description or a piece of dialogue by writing, more or less, ‘I’m stopping now, so as not to lapse into cliche.’ This is all well and good, but what is the outcome? First a sense of unease. Closing the book, one thinks what a lot of fuss over nothing. And then, if Mr. Nabokov is so superior to the novels he writes, why does he write them? You would swear it was out of masochism, so as to have the pleasure of catching himself redhanded in an act of fakery. And then, lastly, I’m willing to admit that Mr. Nabokov is right to skip the big novelistic set-pieces, but what does he give us in their place? Preparatory chatter (though when we are duly readied, nothing happens, excellent little scenes, charming portraits and literary essays. Where is the novel? It has dissolved into its own venom: this is what I call a literature of the learned.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

The marker of a philosophical education, like any education, seems to be well-surveyed nescience. You know that you do not know so very many things. The same seems to go for a certain kind of novel, amounting to a criticism of writing novels, and the way that novel-writing may represent a deep, generically human desire to make sense of our lives, and have that making-sense have value. You read novels and start to see the yawning gap of what novels cannot do. Accordingly, you may find a yawning gap between your life and your ability to make sense of it. You may press the snooze button repeatedly.

The tempting answer is that the optimistic path can at least account for its selection. It makes sense to write novels that defend why one ought to write novels, and less sense to write novels that do not. But the temptation of this answer is lessened if its defense requires a defense — perhaps that optimistic novels make sense of the enterprise of writing novels might lead to the question of, well, why fucking write novels?.

Worse, when artistic works seem to exclusively focus on artistic works, or what artistic works in general mean. They start to seem as meaningful as a hall of mirrors. My friend Cotton and I would bat that back and forth. He defended this by stating that art is about life, and isn’t art a part of life?

A diary entry about navel-gazing wouldn’t be complete with considering why I would even write such an entry. How clever of me to refrain.

One Reply to “halls of mirrors”

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Sophia! I have a question. Throughout the essay you write that it makes sense for novels to be about why and how they are intrinsically worthwhile. And as you say, “…a piece of art rests upon how it reinvigorates oneself.” However, at the end of the essay you seem to abruptly gyrate your position by presenting the “hall of mirrors” metaphor to argue that one finds a certain amount of vapidness in art exclusively about art. To me, these two points seem somewhat at odds with each other. So I’m curious to know whether you see a distinction between the two: are “novels about writing novels” not also, in your view, “halls of mirrors”? Or, whether the whole point of the essay is to present this very conflict: a sort of existential crisis not on the part of the authors, but the novels and art itself?

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