Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Samuel Johnson is Indignant

by Lydia Davis

One of Lyn Hejinian’s first collections of poetry is called “Writing is an Aid to Memory." In it, Hejinian writes “necessity is the limit of forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again.” Memory is a gain, but in losing it, one is not fully aware of what has been loss, even if a part of oneself insists that something that was once there is no now missing. What, the forgetting mind might ask, was forgotten? Lydia Davis, a contemporary of Hejinian, also writes about memory and its connection to writing and experience in her collection of short stories, “Samuel Johnson is Indignant.” No comparison, title or phrase could adequately sum up Davis’ work, which preoccupies itself not just with memory and writing, but also with liminal states and the futility of attempting to fix down tidy rationalizations. The comparison to Hejinian is apt, as both writers are more than able to elicit pleasure with their mastery of language, but never do so within the thrall of language – Lydia Davis is skeptical of language in the way a great writer should be.

This difficulty to quantify or categorize is apparent even in the designation of Lydia Davis’ writing as short stories. Some of them do indeed look, act and smell like short stories, such as “In a Northern Country,” or “Alvin the Typesetter.” Other pieces are still for all intents and purposes “short stories,” but their experimentation and openness begins to blur the lines of what is expected - check out “Jury Duty.” And then, there are the short pieces, those wonderfully bright and inventive selections like the title piece, “Samuel Johnson is Indignant:,” which explains “that Scotland has so few trees.” Later on in the collection, “Spring Spleen” reminds the reader of Baudelaire, both in the title which is reminiscent of that author’s “Paris Spleen,” as well as in its mix of familiar observation and startling detail. See how “I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon, they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child.” Even by just checking out many of the pieces first appeared, in journals such as Shiny, Hambone or Conjunctions, one will notice the blurring between “poetry” and “prose.” These are journals, after all, which specialize in poetry and poetics.

So does Lydia Davis write prose, poetry or perhaps that bastard child of both, the prose poem?

Well, who cares!

What is important to note is her interest in the indefinable. The impossibility to categorize, even in the face of our desire to and pleasure in categorization. The first piece in the collection is called “Boring Friends.” It’s very funny, as the speaker baldly states “We know only four boring people.” From this first sentence, the speaker is already attempting to place things into what is rationally “known.” This first statement, a very clear one, is soon complicated as it is learned that “…most of the friends we find interesting find us boring.” There are no absolutes, only relatives. This creates a shifting middle-ground, which brings with it a degree of unease, “the few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust…” Nothing can actually be placed into either polar absolute, everything exists in the middle. Time and again throughout the collection, the speakers identify themselves from this middle ground. In “Blind Date,” a woman looks back on her young adulthood and considers that “I wasn’t actually very fast. I was faster than some but not as fast as others.” But then, that’s sort of an empty statement, isn’t it? Don’t we all exist within that very bracket?

Many of the pieces also confront the difficulty to correctly assess or quantify a situation from a subjective vantage point. How can a “pure” rationalization be made if all states or contexts are inherently irrational? In the story “Thyroid Diary,” the speaker writes that if her “…brain is working this well with inadequate amounts of thyroid hormone, how well my brain will work with the proper amounts of thyroid hormone! But then I began to distrust the though, because what seemed like good working of the brain seemed good to that very brain that was lacking the proper dose…” There is no stable point of reference, no grand objectivity.

If mind and memory by itself is suspect, then perhaps Hejinian’s adage that “writing is the aid of memory” might come in handy? Davis has a healthy distrust of words though. In “Company,” the speaker is afraid to answer the letters she receives, and considers that after a while “…the friendly or neutral words are still there on various sheets of paper in different envelopes, but in the minds of these people who wrote the unanswered letters the words for what they are thinking about me…are no longer friendly or neutral…” This, finally, is what makes Lydia Davis such an interesting contemporary writer; she understands the gaps that words not only signify, but ultimately are. She does not criticize the process of categorizing, far from it, she takes much pleasure in it. The emphasis, importantly and truly, is placed on the act itself.

Where else could it be?

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